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Daffodils: Antique and Fragrant

By Chet Grabowski, Colorado State University Cooperative Extension Master Gardener, Denver County

Who among us is not ready to trade March snows for April daffodils? Known as the "poet's flower," the daffodil's scientific name is Narcissus after the mythological Grecian youth who was so captivated by his own beauty that he turned into a narcissus flower.

Among the many daffodil species are the Jonquils, particularly fragrant and of the first flowers cultivated by American colonists.

Little wonder our forebearers grew them! Daffodils are easy. You can pretty much plant 'em and forget 'em. They blossom freely year after year with a minimum of maintenance and actually multiply in numbers over the seasons. Foraging rodents and other animals tend to leave them alone.

For daffodils to make the most impact, gardeners plant dozens -- even hundreds -- of bulbs in a single planting. At a cost ranging between $30 and $70 per hundred bulbs, an extensive daffodil planting is within the reach of most gardeners.

How do you choose daffodils? The genus Narcissus is divided into 12 distinct divisions by flower type with more than 70 species and 25,000 cultivars.

In addition, daffodils are classified as to when they bloom, either early, mid-season or late-season. Because daffodil bloom lasts two to three weeks, the enterprising gardener can extend the blooming season by judicious selection of varieties from each grouping.

Begin at the beginning by choosing some heirloom daffodil varieties that have stood the test of time.

Colorado hockey fans will appreciate one of the oldest varieties, Tazetta Narcissus, commonly called Avalanche, a daffodil that dates back to 1700. Tazetta daffodils (Division VIII) are among the oldest in cultivation and originally came from Turkey.

With white petals (perianths), a pale yellow cup (the center trumpet) and a delicate fragrance, Avalanche can feature up to a dozen or more small flowers per stem. It's ideal for growing indoors in pots and "forcing" into early springtime bloom.

Other Tazettas, both heirloom and fragrant, are Silver Chimes, (1914 vintage) and Geranium (1930s). Geranium is a white and orange flower that holds up well when cut for bouquets and the fragrant Silver Chimes features from eight to 12 creamy-white blossoms per stem.

Poeticus (Division IX), with dogwood-like flowers and red-rimmed centers, are spicy and fragrant. The variety, Actaea, (1927), is another excellent choice.

Jonquilla varieties (Division VII) are perhaps the most fragrant of all daffodils, though their hardiness for Colorado is questionable. It's safer to use Jonquilla varieties for indoor forcing.

Double Daffodils (Division IV) grow well outdoors. Check out varieties such as Cheerfulness (1923) and Yellow Cheerfulness (1937). These display centers with multiple rosebud-like florets that give off a sweet, musky fragrance. One is a creamy white, the other a soft lemon. Both are excellent naturalizers.

Other Doubles to consider are Erlicheer, with 15 to 20 florets on each stem, and Sir Winston Churchill, with three to five creamy white and orange flowers per stem. Finally, no garden would be complete without a selection from the workhorses of the daffodil world, the large-cupped varieties from Division II. Though they give off much less fragrance, they feature knock-your-eyes-out blossoms.

A few must-have varieties include Carlton (1927), a two-toned yellow and the world's most widely planted daffodil.

Cabineer (also 1927), is lemon with an orange-red cup whose colors intensify with age; Ceylon is bright, golden yellow with an orange cup that lasts and lasts; Ice Follies, the world's second most-used daffodil, features an extra large creamy white perianth group centered with a flat yellow cup that matures to white.

The list could go on, and it does. If you didn't choose daffodils last fall for this spring's bloom, begin now to plan for next year. Select planting sites in advance, so you will be ready when planting time comes this fall.

Purchase high-quality bulbs, which will produce the largest and longest-lived blossoms. Don't mix bargain-hunting with buying daffodils -- the two aren't compatible.

If you buy at a local garden center, look for bulbs four to five inches in circumference; buy the largest bulbs you can find. Inspect the bottom of the bulb for any sign of fungus. This would be indicated by a white powdery substance. Discard or reject these.

Many highly reputable bulb vendors are available by mail-order, too, and may offer the most variety. Recommended bulb farms include Wayside Gardens, White Flower Farms, Smith & Hawken and the Daffodil Mart.

A final word: When buying and planting daffodils, think dozens or even hundreds. And, remember, as a good cook can never have too much garlic, neither can a good gardener have too many daffodils.

Photograph courtesy of Judy Sedbrook.

For more information on daffodils, see: The American Daffodil Society

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Date last revised: 01/05/2010