Daffodils are so varied in form, color and span of spring bloom that they constitute a bulb universe unto themselves. The smallest enliven the tiniest of nooks and crannies in garden beds or containers; the largest, planted en masse, can bring a whole meadow or apple orchard to life. They are the least troubled of any bulb by burrowing pests or aboveground browsers, and they will reliably increase in number from year to year if planted in well-drained, sunny beds.
For all these reasons, daffodils should be at the top of the list of spring bulbs for fall planting.
The earliest varieties might burst into flower in January, but those are isolated curiosities more than harbingers of spring. Daffodil season begins in earnest in early March and runs to early May, weather permitting. Peak display is from mid-March to mid- to late April.
If you are prone to botanic speak, you can call a daffodil a narcissus. In the South, daffodils are sometimes known as jonquils, because the jonquil was the one type of daffodil that could reliably grow in a climate with milder winters and hotter summers.
Some daffodils, such as the popular robust varieties, present one bloom per stem, but smaller types tend to offer multiple blooms. In the case of true jonquils and a group called tazettas, which includes houseplant paperwhites, a single stem offers an array of small, fragrant blossoms.
The archetypal daffodil is yellow, but colors vary. Even the yellow is not fixed; varieties are available in shades both hot and cool, including primrose and lemon. All-white daffodils add sophistication and are effective companions for other delicate early-spring plants, such as snowflake, scilla, muscari, phlox, bluebells, foamflower and epimediums.
The cup of the daffodil extends from radiating petals called a perianth. This dual structure creates the classic daffodil architecture, but it also allows for enchanting color contrasts within a bloom. In some, the perianth is yellow and the cup a strong orange; in others, the perianth is white with rose-red cups; and in some, it is white with a yellow cup. Many daffodils are fragrant, even if you have to get close to measure the scent.
The size of a daffodil is measured in two basic ways: The height and width of a clump, and the size (and configuration) of the flower.
Classic trumpet daffodils will grow to about 18 inches high. Miniature varieties might be just 6 inches high or less. Bulbs vary in size, depending on the size of the plant.
Use and placement
One of the most effective ways to use daffodils is to plant a clump of at least five bulbs of a single variety, then repeat throughout a given area of the garden. Another approach is to interplant an entire area of ground cover or perennial beds with a matrix of daffodils.
Match the scale of your variety to the space. In a quiet corner of the garden, smaller daffodils, such as triandrus or cyclamineus varieties, work better than large trumpet or large-cupped daffodils. The bigger ones are more suited to open sites, such as unmown lawns, orchards and embankments. Miniatures work well in containers, rock gardens and well-drained and gravelly herb gardens. Daintier varieties work well on either side of a path or walkway.
Planting and care
Daffodils grow and increase dependably in many soil types. They like some soil moisture when they are actively growing, from early fall to late spring, but they will rot if summer conditions are too wet, a potential problem in irrigated gardens. Avoid waterlogged areas.
The blooms of late-season varieties can be blasted by the heat and faded by the sun, so plant those where they will have a little shade. Otherwise, daffodils benefit from locations that receive full sun or part shade. In deep shade, bulbs will lack vigor and eventually stop flowering.
Generally, bulbs should be planted at a depth about twice their length: Smaller ones at 3 to 4 inches, and large bulbs at 6 inches or more. Mature bulbs may have one or two smaller bulbs attached. Separate them before planting. Bulbs should be buried 4 to 6 inches apart to allow for future growth, though bulbs in containers can be set closer together as long as they don’t touch.
Put in daffodils before tulips. Newly planted daffodils often bloom later in their first spring than in subsequent ones, something to consider in timing your spring displays. Even fully open daffodils can endure mild freezes, so spend your energies protecting other plants.
Cut daffodils exude a thick sap that can irritate the skin. Put the stalks in a plastic bag as you gather them when cutting for the vase.
When blooms fade, remove the flower but not the stalk. You will have to keep the foliage for another four to six weeks to build energy for the following year. Do not braid or fold the leaves; gather them with garden twine to prevent splaying. When daffodils are planted in beds of robust perennials and grasses, the foliage is soon hidden by the emerging bedfellows.
You can lift bulbs after the leaves die back and, after drying them with fans, store them in net bags in a cool, dry place over the summer. This allows you to separate the bulbs as they increase and to plant additional bulbs in early fall. This is only necessary if your daffodils have become weak in flower because of bulb congestion or the encroachment of shade.
Daffodils are grouped into at least a dozen types or “divisions.” Fancy exhibition varieties are out there — the stuff of spring daffodil shows — but they may lack the staying power of humbler varieties. Here are some of my favorite varieties, by type.
Trumpet: The ubiquitous yellow trumpet variety is King Alfred, but others are worth growing. Dutch Master has a pale yellow perianth, and the trumpet is wide, richer in color and frilled. Mount Hood is the classic all-white trumpet. Las Vegas is white with a primrose yellow cup. Honeybird has a pale lemon perianth with a white trumpet that is yellow at its base.
Large-cupped: In large-cupped varieties, the cup (or corona) is slightly smaller but still distinctive, and the flower has the classic daffodil form. Planted in drifts, they can have a dramatic effect over a large area. This division contains some of the most popular garden varieties, including the popular Ice Follies.
I prefer less common varieties. Ceylon has a yellow perianth with a rich orange cup that reddens over the blooming period. Salome is white with a pink cup that is tinged yellow at its rim. Stainless is pure white. Pacific Rim is a clear pale yellow whose cup, shallower than most in this class, is yellow with a distinctive orange-red rim.
Small-cupped: Small-cupped varieties are also tall, robust daffodils, by and large, and need some space to shine. Barrett Browning is white with an orange cup, Goose Green is white with an orange cup edged red. All-white varieties include Lovable, Polar Ice and Dallas.
Triandrus: These shift the whole persona of the daffodil to a more delicate and sophisticated level. They have nodding flowers, two or more to a stem, and petals that are reflexed slightly. Thalia is a classic pure-white variety and one of the tallest. Hawera is daintier, shorter and crowded with as many as seven small, pale yellow flowers to a stem. Ice Wings is shorter, with ivory white blooms.
Cyclamineus: These early-season varieties are named after cyclamens for the way the petals are swept back behind the cup, which is often markedly elongated. Dove Wings is white with a yellow cup, and Jetfire (one of my favorites) is yellow with an orange-red cup. Tete-a-Tete is multi-flowered but small, growing to just about 8 inches, and is well-suited to pots and small beds.
Jonquilla: True jonquils tend to be between 12 and 16 inches high with one to five flowers to each stem. Most varieties appear in the middle of daffodil season and are fragrant. Native to Spain and Portugal, they are good choices for hot, dry sites.
Pipit grows to 16 inches and is lemon yellow with the cup aging to white. Sailboat is another commendable variety, growing to 12 inches, with clusters of small creamy white flowers. Yellow Sailboat is a pale yellow version.
Tazetta: These appear mid- to late season, have clusters of small flowers — as many as 20 per stem — and have a strong fragrance. They are not winter hardy beyond Zone 6.
My favorites include Geranium, which is creamy white with an orange cup; Avalanche, white with dainty yellow cups; and Minnow, a miniature version that grows to just 8 inches or so, with white petals and button-like yellow cups.