In East Texas Gardens

Daffodils: The Heralds of Spring

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We call them by many names – daffodils, jonquils, sweeties, campernelles, paperwhites – but they’re all narcissus. To me they’ll always be daffodils, as I grew up hearing lines from William Wordsworth’s iconic poem:

I wandered lonely as a cloud that floats on high o’er vales and hills,

When all at once I saw a crowd, a host, of golden daffodils;

I know there’s more to the poem, but that’s all my mom would recite when she saw her daffodils blooming in her garden each spring. One of my happiest discoveries on moving to Texas from Florida was that I could once again enjoy these spring bulbs.

Driving down one of the FM roads in Wood County, I stopped to see a field of jonquils on the roadside, all happy and bright and sunny. When I got out to take some photos, I noticed they smelled like juicy fruit gum – and so provide a better show for the senses than bluebonnets (please don’t make me move out of state for saying that). This year’s show has started quite early with my first bulbs blooming in mid-January and surviving several rounds of mid-to-low 20s temperature.

Which daffodils can grow here? Don’t buy what’s in the big box stores if you want your daffodils to return year after year. Pretty much any daffodil you buy will bloom the first year you plant it, but if you want your daffodils to perennialize, you need to be more selective. The easiest way to make sure your bulb is a good performer for East Texas is to buy your bulbs from the Smith County Master Gardener (SCMG) fall bulb sale in October. However, I can never make it to Tyler on that weekend – it conflicts with the Arboretum fall plant sale. Also, I want more bulbs and new varieties, too.

I want daffodils that are white and green and pink and yellow and orange and red; I want single daffodils and double daffodils, early daffodils and late daffodils. Is there a blue daffodil yet? I’ll want that too. So I buy from many different sources, from Costco (an inexpensive source) to specialized online bulb nurseries (typically more expensive but with a much wider selection). So how can I be relatively certain that I’m buying bulbs that will do well here? I will share my tips to buying daffodils that will return year after year.

According to the Royal Horticultural Society, there are 13 divisions of daffodils, plus miniatures. If you know what division a daffodil belongs to, you can generally predict its performance here. For example, Division 1 is trumpet daffodils, those with single flowers on a stem and whose trumpet is as long as, or longer than, the petals. Typical of this division is the King Alfred Daffodil offered by the bagful at big box stores. These typically perform well the first year and return sporadically, if at all, in east Texas gardens. Similarly, most double daffodils won’t return – but to be honest I’ve bought some gorgeous double daffodils and planted them as annuals; the price was right and their beauty brought me joy for a season.

The best daffodils for Texas come from Division 7 (Jonquilla, small, fragrant, clustered blooms that locals call sweeties)- and Division 8 (Tazetta, with large clusters – up to 20 flowers – of small blooms, often with a musky scent, a veritable bouquet on each stem). Most daffodils in these two divisions will thrive, return, and increase in east Texas. Some of my favorite jonquils are ‘Golden Echo’ (yellow cup and white petals); ‘Pipit’ (white cup and yellow petals); ‘Kedron’ (orange cup and yellow petals); and ‘Sun Disc’ (gold cup encircled by rounded, overlapping yellow petals). My Tazetta favorites include the incomparable ‘Avalanche’ (an heirloom also called ‘Seventeen Sisters’, a yellow cup with white petals and 15-20 blooms per stem) and ‘Italicus ‘ (yellow cup and white petals, with a star-shaped bloom). SCMG also recommend ‘Geranium’ (orange cup and white petals) and ‘Falconet’ (orange cup and yellow petals), but this is the first year I’ve planted them. My favorite double daffodil is ‘Ehrlicheer’, an off-white double that looks like clusters of tiny gardenias; even though it’s in a different division, it clearly has Tazetta in its bloodlines.

You can still make smarter choices for bulbs from other divisions. Look for bulbs that are described as ‘naturalizing’. Also look for those with a bloom period listed as early- or mid-season; our summers come too early for late-season bloomers. For example, if you were looking for a golden-yellow daffodil with a fairly large cup, you might choose ‘Carlton’ or ‘Gigantic Star’. ‘Ice Follies’ has creamy-white petals surrounding a broad yellow cup that fades to white as it ages, giving the look of two different blooms. My favorite pink narcissus is ‘Pink Charm’, another variety with white petals and a white cup edged in apricot that fades to pink. Finally, if you want a short grower to edge a bed or line a path, you can’t find a better daffodil than ‘Tete-a-tete’, a small (6”) daffodil with yellow petals and a darker yellow cup.

For a list of these and other daffodils that I grow in east Texas, as well as links to my favorite online sources, please send an email to txgardengal@gmail.com and I’ll get it out to you!

Now that you know what bulbs to buy, how do you plant and care for daffodils? Plant daffodil bulbs in the fall when the soil has cooled - generally from Halloween through Christmas. I don’t get around to planting mine till after Thanksgiving, and if I’ve found some good bargains at end-of-season sales it may be Christmas or even New Year’s before I plant them. Daffodils need at least 6 hours of sun a day when they’re growing, winter through mid-May. Make sure your bed is south or west of any evergreen shrubs so their leaves can get that low sun. Bulbs also prefer well-drained soil, so if you have clay, plant in a raised bed for drainage. When you are picking your spot, consider that daffodil blooms will generally face the sun – so if you plant them on the south or west side of a path, you won’t see their gorgeous cups.

I can usually plant 100 bulbs in a half hour or less. Does that sound like boasting? It’s not meant that way; I plant my bulbs in the easiest way possible. Many gardeners dig individual holes for each and every bulb, as if they’re planting 4” annuals, but the secret to planting a lot of bulbs quickly is to dig a hole to the required depth (usually 4 to 6 inches for large bulbs, 3 to 4 inches for jonquils) that is wide and long enough for a nice spring display. This also ensures that you don’t plant your bulbs in a single line like little soldiers all in a row.

Spread some compost in the bottom of your hole, and work it into the soil just a bit. Place the bulbs in the hole pointy-side up, with about five or six bulbs per square foot (closer if you want a more impressive display, farther apart if you’re content to let them fill in for a year or two). Cover with the soil you took from the hole, top-dress with some more compost, and mulch lightly. That’s it, you’ve planted a bunch of bulbs in just a little time.

As far as continuing care for daffodils, the biggest secret is not to trim, braid, or mow the leaves until after Mother’s Day. The leaves need about 6 weeks of growth to feed the bulb for next year’s blooms. The bulbs don’t really need special fertilizer, just a top dressing of compost and mulch each year to keep them thriving.

By following these tips, you can have plenty of daffodils next year to welcome spring to your east Texas garden.

Lin Grado is the garden manager for the Wood County Arboretum & Botanical Gardens. She is available to answer your gardening questions each Wednesday from 9 a.m. until noon. Her email is txgardengal@gmail.com.

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