MARCH 31, 1997

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Gardening: Spring gold--enjoying daffodils

narcissus

Narcissus flowers are a most anticipated harbinger of spring.

gardening by Mary Robson, Area Extension Agent, WSU
Perhaps nothing says "spring is here" quite as much as breathing in the light, fresh fragrance of a daffodil bloom. These sturdy garden bulbs, in bloom now, have been grown for decades in the maritime Pacific Northwest as a flower crop, both for the spring beauty and for the bulbs that are shipped and planted in fall. After weeks of persistent rain, their buds insist that we will indeed see spring.
   Now's the time to observe these bulbs in bloom, to make notes of favorites and to plan for fall ordering and planting. Take a daffodil walk around the neighborhood or a local park and notice where they thrive. Of all the spring bulbs, daffodils will persist well even in light shade and will tolerate moist garden soils better than tulips or crocus. Older clumps on the edges of gardens in areas like the Puyallup Valley, settle in and produce bloom reliably year after year.
   The US ranks third in world narcissus production, and most of that production comes from western Washington. Daffodils, jonquils, buttercups, and daffy-downdillies: all are all nicknames for bulb plants botanically called narcissus. Whatever their affectionate common names, narcissus are well suited for growth here. Gardeners often want to choose spring bulbs that will "naturalize," or spread and expand in clumps in the garden. Narcissus are ideal for naturalizing, and it's possible by choosing a succession of early, mid-spring, and late-blooming bulbs to have narcissus in bloom over several months of spring. Plant in well-drained soil to get best growth. Narcissus do not require summer water, because they are then dormant (out of active growth). This characteristic makes them ideal for the water-wise summer landscape.
   The earliest to bloom in this area is often the six-inch, "Tete a Tete," named for the two flowers on the tip of the stem, which seem to be engaged in intimate conversation. Blooming as early as mid-February, these small bulbs settle well into rockeries and sunny corners of gardens, and multiply solidly over time. Their butter-yellow bloom often overlaps with the bloom time of crocus, creating a classic spring garden combination in gold, blue, and white.
   Another early blooming type is "February Gold." These flowers are trumpet shaped, looking like a miniature version of the larger trumpet flowered narcissus "King Alfred" and "Unsurpassable." The larger yellow trumpet cultivars bloom in mid to late March in most years. For those who want white or pink in the spring garden, narcissus have been hybridized to include dozens of pastel flowers in colors other than yellow. Look for "Thalia," a crisp white with three flowers per stem, blooming in late March. "Mount Hood" and a cultivar called "White Ideal" are big narcissus with trumpet shape, in white. Many excellent pinks and salmons also grace gardens. Look for "Accent," white with a deep pink center, or "Salome," white with salmon. Another pink is "Mon Cherie." Check with flower growers now to see these in bloom.
   Some types of narcissus are deeply fragrant, perfumed far beyond the ordinary daffodil. Many of these are late bloomers; look for "Cheerfulness," multiple flowers per stem and heavily scented. Also fragrant is "Geranium," white with and orange cup.
   Care of daffodils is simple. When they first emerge in spring, fertilize the plantings. After bloom, remove the faded stems, then let the foliage mature and ripen naturally. Daffodil foliage can be cut back 6 to 8 weeks after bloom is over, but for good bloom in the following years, do allow it to have this maturing period. The ripening foliage is providing nutrients for next year's flowers.
   If you've received a pot of florist daffodils in bloom, it's easy to plant these out in the garden for next year's flowers. Do this when the leaves are still green, planting in well-drained soil. Don't set the bulbs deeper in the ground than they were in the nursery pot. One of the pleasant memories of my childhood is joining my mother in planting daffodils along roadsides in rural Ohio every year after Easter. She would collect discarded pots of narcissus from florists and plant them, creating enduring spring scenes when they popped up again to bloom.
   Narcissus have a natural defense system, because the bulbs contain an alkaloid that's toxic. It's not harmful to humans unless bulbs are chewed and eaten. (Keep the bulbs away from children.) One of the great pleasures of planting them is that hungry critters visiting gardens won't touch them. Squirrels, who dig up and munch tulips and crocuses as if they were fast food packets, don't eat daffodils. Deer aren't partial to them, either. So, if you want a nearly deer-proof, rodent resistant and drought tolerant flower, plant daffodils.
   Slugs are the worst of the garden pests for narcissus. They will shinny up the stem to eat the flowers. Do stay on slug patrol during narcissus season. Failure to bloom may also be a result of attack by the narcissus bulb fly, a fly that lays eggs on the ripening foliage which hatch into larve that hollow out the insides of the bulbs in summer. This is a far less common problem than mollusks.
   Spring's here; enjoy the narcissus and plan now to choose which ones you'll select for fall planting in October and November. And if you have a bag of unplanted narcissus left over from the fall, get them in the ground now. They'll bloom later, with shorter flowers, but will return to a normal rhythm in the years ahead.

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