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Cornucopia - Daffodils - was Wordsworth right?

Daffodils - was Wordsworth right?
Susan Rowe

In February 2011 we had an excellent talk by Ron Davies about the unusual plants he is able to grow in his Cumbrian garden despite the cold conditions. One of his slides showed a prize something-or-other growing next to a clump of yellow daffodils. Ron apologised for the daffodils and went on to add that in his opinion they are OK in woodland, rough grass and municipal plantings, but they have too many bad habits for him so they are banished from his mixed borders. Nobody challenged this view but a murmur went round the audience – clearly not everyone agreed. But he has a point.

Many gardeners think of daffodils as the harbingers of spring. Their cheerful colours and nodding flowers gladden the heart and lift the spirits – at least, for a time. Wordsworth may have waxed lyrical about their inspirational qualities but did not comment on their performance as garden plants. It is exciting to see the first green noses poking through in January (earlier, sometimes, if the weather has been mild) and anticipation mounts as leaves lengthen, buds appear and the first flowers burst open in February or March. But unless the variety has been chosen with care and the bulbs sensibly sited this is when problems can start. Some Narcissus varieties are inherently better behaved than others so before we plant we should engage our brains and think about the following points:

  • Flowers. Is the colour what you want – do you really want a pink one? Are the flowers of good form and substance? How well do they age?
  • Leaves. How many of these are there in relation to the flowers? Some cultivars don’t produce many flowers but do produce lots of leaves. Do the leaves stand up straight or are they floppy? Do the leaves grow too long and shield the flowers from view?
  • Longevity. How long is the period of pleasure? Some cultivars are past their best so quickly that you miss them if you’re not paying attention.
  • Weather resistance. How well do the plants stand up to battering by wind, rain and, occasionally, snow? Do they collapse flat on their faces or have they the ability keep upright?
  • Persistence. Will they flower again next year? Some cultivars increase and get better and better, whilst others dwindle disappointingly.
  • Death. When the flowers are over all narcissi are, frankly, a pain. Collapsing foliage is unsightly and in the way. But some cultivars become dormant in a more orderly fashion – well, marginally.

When trying to assess the garden-worthiness of the different cultivars bulb catalogues and gardening books are generally of no help. Neither are the displays of nurserymen or the magnificent exhibits at the Harrogate Flower Show. They give no indication of garden performance. So for the average gardener picking a good one depends on trial and error, recommendation and our own observations. Choosing is not easy.

My 2010/11 edition of The Plant Finder lists 16 pages of Narcissus varieties and cultivars, including 103 sorts described as ‘new’ – though some of these may be reintroductions of heritage cultivars. My 1999 revision of the RHS Encyclopaedia of Plants & Flowers comments on 96 cultivars and varieties, many of which were holding the RHS AGM. It is a bit disconcerting to find that a lot of these now have only one supplier listed in The Plant Finder and one is now not in at all. Why have these plants fallen from favour? Am I being cynical in suggesting that marketing has much to do with it, or have there been genuine improvements in garden qualities?

Over the years I must have grown at least 50 different cultivars. Most have now been consigned to the compost heap. If asked which is the best cultivar I have ever grown I would have no hesitation in singling out N. 'Peeping Tom'. This is a cyclamineus hybrid, but at 45cm (18”) is rather tall for that group. The flowers are a glowing clear yellow and of most elegant shape – long narrow trumpets with a frilled edge, and a reflexed perianth. The ratio of flower to leaf is excellent and the flowers (there are lots of them) are held well clear of the foliage. Both leaves and flowers stand up straight regardless of what the weather throws at them. The number of flowers increases year on year and they are exceptionally long lasting. In my garden in 2011 the first buds opened 8 days before those of its near relative N. 'February Gold' and lasted 9 days longer than that cultivar (in good condition too) in all giving 38 days (5½ weeks) of pleasure. When flowering is over the (relatively) sparse foliage dies back as quickly as any other and if the general gardening advice of allowing 6 weeks for the leaves to collapse is followed the mess can be cleared away at the end of May in good time for something else to occupy the space. Of course there are other good ones. N. 'Tête-è-tête' is ubiquitous precisely because it is so good. If you only have space for small daffodils it is the one to go for.

To disguise the mess of the dying foliage clumps of daffodils need positioning carefully. The back of the border under deciduous shrubs springs to mind and in this spot they might even receive a dressing of fish, blood and bone (or something) when the shrubs are getting a spring feed. Better to plant a few clumps of really good varieties; they will give you just as much pleasure as Wordsworth’s never-ending line – maybe more.

If daffodils are placed between herbaceous perennials then the flowering time of both needs to be carefully considered. Planting late flowering narcissi in this position can be fraught with problems as the collapsing leaves and the developing perennials fight for space. Anyway, do you really want late flowering daffodils? Take N. 'Stratosphere' for example. This is a jonquil type that flowers very late. It has many good points but its vibrant yellow colour comes at a time when the garden is moving from the blues and yellows of early spring to the soft pinks and creams of blossom time. Unless you are of the Christopher Lloyd school of colour combinations, N. 'Stratosphere' stands out like a sore thumb. If you must have a late flowering type then the dainty white N. 'Thalia' fits the bill.

Three years ago, at the Harrogate Spring Show, (yes – spring!), I was persuaded to buy some bulbs of N. 'Avalanche'. The sales pitch was that these bulbs had been imported from Australia and were therefore confused about the seasons. I was assured that if planted straight away they would bloom in August and thereafter revert to normal flowering time when they had recovered from jet-lag. They grew badly. It is doubtful whether they were true to name, but I discovered that in August I had no interest in daffodils – the garden had moved on and they just looked wrong. I threw them out. What a waste of money.

Restraint is called for, but as plantaholics we have instincts to try ‘just one more’. The way to deal with this is to plant our new acquisitions in pots, and it really is true that they grow better if they are planted in good time – avoid the temptation to buy end of season half-price job lots. Bulbs planted in pots can be put out of the way to overwinter until growth is well developed when they can be brought to the fore and enjoyed. (Remember, though, that not all narcissi are cast-iron hardy. The tazetta types such as N. 'Silver Chimes' and N. 'Minnow' are most at risk and may need protection from the cold. Bulbs in pots are more vulnerable to cold damage than those tucked up snugly in the open ground.) When flowering is over and we have assessed their qualities we can decide whether to keep them or not. The books tell us to plant out such bulbs into the garden so that they can be enjoyed again next year. Beware. Following this advice can lead to a spotty garden effect and we will have compounded the problem of the dying foliage. Fine for those of us with big gardens – not so clever for those like me with small plots.

At this point I bin those that have done badly (the dreadful N. 'Roseworthy' – few flowers, copious leaves, falls flat, fades etc.) and those I just don’t like (N. 'Sun Disc' – horrid little flowers of unpleasant shape) and plant out the rest under the fruit trees on my allotment where the undisciplined design effect is of no consequence. By the time the trees need attention the fading daffodil foliage can be cheerfully trampled upon. Of course, in this position I don’t get much pleasure from the flowers unless I pick them. So I do.

To sum up, there is no need to be out on a limb with Ron Davies. Daffodils can be enjoyed – just don’t lose control. Wordsworth was only partially right.

First published in the East Yorkshire Group Newsletter, November 2011
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 30.
© Copyright for this article: Susan Rowe

This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2012. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.


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