Jennifer Schultz Nelson
Extension Educator, Horticulture
My favorite spring flowering bulb is the daffodil. They multiply effortlessly, and squirrels and deer detest their taste. What more could a person ask for in a bulb? Our investment in hundreds of daffodil bulbs when we bought our home created a lot of work to get them all planted, but the numbers of bright blooms have increased each year with absolutely no effort on our part.
What exactly is the difference between a daffodil, a narcissus, and a jonquil? The simple answer is nothing, or "it depends". All three terms are used as common names in many cases and used incorrectly. Narcissus is technically the only correct scientific name identifying the genus of this group of plants. It is not a common name, though some use it as such. Daffodil is typically used as a collective name for all these plants, but is more often used to describe the larger flowered types. Jonquil is a name sometimes used for this group as well, but actually only applies to a very small subgroup, Narcissus jonquilla and related hybrids, which typically have several small, fragrant flowers on each stem with flat petals. The foliage is very narrow and reed-like, according to the American Daffodil Society (ADS) (http://daffodilusa.org/index.html).
Classifying daffodils is more difficult than one might think at first glance. As a genus, Narcissus is divided into thirteen divisions, all defined by foliage and flower color and form. Twelve of the divisions describe cultivated forms, the thirteenth describes wild species and hybrids.
Within the thirteen divisions of Narcissus, there are at least twenty-five species, with some debate on whether this number should be greater. The Royal Horticultural Society maintains a Daffodil Data Base that lists over 13,000 different named hybrids of Narcissus, all divided among the thirteen divisions.
There may be wide variety in the genus Narcissus, but one unwavering characteristic is that all parts of the bulb and plant are poisonous. This may sound horrible, but it's only horrible for the creatures that wander into our gardens looking for a meal. Most of the time vomiting is the worst of the symptoms after ingesting daffodil plants or bulbs. If large quantities are eaten, animals may show various cardiac symptoms, and may even die. You might think humans are much too intelligent to eat daffodils, but in fact people have mistaken them for onions or leeks. They probably never made that mistake again after experiencing the aftermath of vomiting and diarrhea! A less severe reaction typically occurs with repeated contact with stems, leaves and flowers. It is a contact dermatitis, a rash sometimes called "daffodil pickers' rash".
The genus Narcissus got its name from Greek mythology, where a handsome young man named Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water and drowned as he tried to embrace himself. Legend says daffodils grew up at the site where he perished, and so the genus was named after him. Sometimes the daffodil is called "the flower of death" because of this legend.
Daffodils grow best in well-drained sunny sites, as do most bulbs. They need little maintenance. Following blooming, the foliage should not be cut back until it begins to yellow. Many find it simpler to plant daffodils in their perennial beds, so that as the perennials grow in each spring, they camouflage the post-bloom daffodils, making cutting back unnecessary.
Daffodils will multiply and produce gorgeous clumps of blooms in the spring. They may be divided in the fall. I have seen some garden centers and mail order groups offering pre-chilled, sometimes pre-rooted daffodils, intended to be planted now to bloom this spring. This is typically a very expensive route to go. For more bloom for your buck, take advantage of the "pre-season" specials several mail order companies are offering and delay your planting until this fall. You can often find unique bulbs at bargain prices.
If you have purchased or been given daffodils potted and forced into early bloom, they can be planted in your garden for years of enjoyment. Treat them as you would plants in your garden, allowing the foliage to mature and yellow. Once the foliage has died back, remove the soil from the bulbs, and put them in a cool dry place until the fall. This fall, plant them as you normally would any other daffodil bulb. I did this with several pots of daffodil bulbs that were centerpieces at my bridal shower in spring of 2006. These bulbs have flowered reliably every year since, serving as a living memory of that day.
A common question people ask this time of year is what to do with spring bulbs they bought last fall, but never planted. I answered this question myself two years ago when I couldn't resist some daffodils marked down to $1 for a bag of 25 bulbs in December. About as soon as I bought them, it snowed and became bitter cold. The bulbs sat in my garage that winter, and as soon as the ground thawed in the spring, I went ahead and planted them. I had nothing to lose but $1. I was careful to not step in my flower beds and compact the soggy soil, and I planted the bulbs as best as I could. They did end up flowering, and have performed well ever since. If you have a similar situation, I suggest as long as the bulbs seem healthy, without any sign of rot or having dried out, go ahead and plant them. You may be pleasantly surprised like I was.