Plant Focus: Daffodils and
by George Papadelis

So which is it, daffodil or Narcissus? The words can actually be used interchangeably. “Daffodil” is the common name and Narcissus is the botanical name. Both terms refer to the exact same plants whose beautiful spring flowers evolve from bulbs planted in the fall. Daffodils are one of the most carefree, pest-free, drought-tolerant, diverse, and beautiful perennials that we can use in our gardens. and
‘Barrett Browning’
Many of you are probably familiar with the Greek legend in which a handsome young man named Narcissus admired his reflection in a pond. He fell in, drowned, and turned into a flower that nodded towards its reflection in the water. The name Narcissus, however, is actually derived from the word “narcotic” which refers to the poisonous alkaloid found in daffodil bulbs. The bulbs are beyond horrible in taste and when ingested in adequate amounts, they can cause death. Roman warriors are said to have carried the bulbs in their saddlebags so that, when mortally wounded, a soldier could eat one and escape to the afterlife.

Consequently, daffodil bulbs are extremely pest-resistant. Squirrels, chipmunks, and other varmints will avoid them completely. Most spring-blooming bulbs like crocus and tulips are squirrel delicacies that should be treated with an animal repellent when initially planted.

Daffodils thrive in well-drained soil. Clay soil will require amending with organic matter such as aged pine bark, compost, manure, or Canadian peat. The deeper it is incorporated, the better your drainage. Plant bulbs with the base down and the nose (tip) up. Remember that the roots of a bulb will grow down, so it is more important that the soil below the bulb is well-cultivated and fertile.

Narcissus-Daffodils-HaweraNetherlands Flower Bulb Information Center
That is what makes conventional bulb planters inadequate. Unless your soil is already amended and cultivated at the appropriate depth, these planters will not allow you to prepare the soil below the bulb. Instead, try removing several inches of soil from the area to be planted. Then, amend the soil and add your bulb food. Position the daffodils firmly in the soil at the appropriate depth and approximately 6 inches apart, then backfill with soil. In well-drained soil, larger (2- to 3-inch diameter) bulbs can be planted about 6 to 8 inches deep. Plant medium-sized bulbs (1- to 2-inch diameter) 3 to 6 inches deep, and small daffodils (1/2- to 1-inch diameter) 2 to 3 inches deep. Heavier soil will require shallower planting. Also, remember that all bulbs look best when planted in masses rather that a few here and there.

Incorporate bulb fertilizer in the soil below the bulb when planting. Established bulbs will benefit from additional applications each fall. Soil that is depleted of nutrients will eventually yield plants that are not capable of blooming. After spring flowering is complete, mark locations that require fall fertilizing by inserting golf tees in the soil over the bulbs. Mulch can help to keep weeds down, aid in moisture retention, and keep the soil cooler.
With most spring bulbs, planting can occur any time before the ground freezes. Daffodils, however, benefit from earlier planting because they actually need to produce roots in the fall. It’s a good idea to plant daffodils from mid-September to mid-October in colder climates. Most daffodils are hardy to zone 3 and will perennialize or naturalize (return year after year) if provided well-drained soil and adequate fertility.

The genus Narcissus includes far too many cultivars to be named or described here. There are also many that only vary slightly from one another. See the sidebar “Daffodils: A Sampling” for just a few.

George Papadelis is the owner of Telly’s Greenhouse in Troy, MI.

If your bulbs aren’t blooming…

  • Foliage was removed too early last year.
  • Location is too shady.
  • Bulbs are stressed (or gone) from insect, pest, or disease damage.
  • Soil is very high in nitrogen. This may yield many leaves and few flowers.
  • Bulbs are planted too close, thus causing stress from a moisture or nutrient deficiency.
  • Bulbs were planted too late, and dehydrated too much before planting.
  • They are in the wrong climate. Bulb may not be hardy for winter lows or summer highs. Perhaps not vernalized (properly chilled).
  • Bulbs are too immature.
  • Bulbs are in soil that is nutrient deficient.
  • Soil lacks sufficient drainage. This can cause rotting of bulbs in a wet winter.

Daffodils: A Sampling

  • ‘Accent’ – White petals with one of the most intense, sunproof pink cups. Vigorous and a good naturalizer. 14-16” tall. Midseason bloomer.
  • ’Actaea’ – White with tiny yellow cups edged in red. Good naturalizer. Spicy fragrance. 15-17”. Late midseason bloomer.
  • ‘Barrett Browning’ – Brilliant white petals and orange-red cup. 14-16”. Early to midseason bloomer.
  • ‘Carlton’ – Two-toned yellow. Vanilla-like fragrance. 14-16”. Early season bloomer.
  • ‘Dutch Master’ – The most popular yellow trumpet. Trumpets face upward. Can be forced. 18-20”. Early midseason bloomer.
  • ‘February Gold’ – Sulfur yellow with yellow-orange cup. Excellent for forcing. 12-14”. Very early bloomer.
  • ‘Flower Record’ – White with a yellow and red cup. Good naturalizer. 16-18”. Midseason bloomer.
  • ‘Geranium’ – Creamy white, with bright orange-red cup. Nice fragrance. Heirloom to 1930. 14-16”. Late midseason bloomer.
  • ‘Hawera’ – Swept back, slender yellow petals. 5-6”. Late season bloomer.
  • ‘Ice Follies’ – Creamy white petals and a light yellow, flat cup make up this extra large flower. Excellent naturalizer. Forces well. 16-18”. Early midseason bloomer.
  • ‘Jack Snipe’ – White, overlapping, flared-back petals with gently fringed yellow cup. Intermediate size. 8-10”. Midseason bloomer.
  • ‘Las Vegas’ – Large white and yellow flower that faces upward. 18-20”. Midseason bloomer. 
  • ‘Minnow’ – Pale yellow petals surround the deeper yellow cup. Multiple small flowers per stem. Good naturalizer. 5-6”. Midseason bloomer.
  • ‘Mount Hood’ – White petals with creamy yellow trumpet that matures to white. Heirloom cultivar. 15-17”. Midseason bloomer.
  • ‘Orangery’ – This white-petalled cultivar has an orange cup or corona that is actually split and reflexed back to produce a double effect. 14-16”. Early midseason bloomer.
  • ‘Pipit’ – Pale yellow with white cup producing 2-3 flowers per stem. Long-lasting flowers. 14-16”. Midseason bloomer.
  • ‘Rijnveld’s Early Sensation’ – Yellow petals and trumpet. The earliest trumpet to bloom: usually late February to March in zones 5b/6a. Forces with a short cold period. 12-14”. Very early bloomer.
  • ‘Rip Van Winkle’ – This dwarf has double yellow flowers. 6-8”. Midseason bloomer.
  • ‘Suzy’ – Yellow petals and rich orange cup. Fragrant. 16”. Midseason bloomer.
  • ‘Tahiti’ – Unique double flower form. Multiple rows of sulfur yellow and red petals. One extremely large flower per stem. Good naturalizer. 12-14”. Late midseason bloomer.
  • ‘Tete-a-tete’ – Multiple tiny flowers per stem with yellow petals and large gold cups. Excellent forcer. 5-6”. Early bloomer.
  • ‘Thalia’ – The whitest white. Fragrant. Good naturalizer. 12-14”. Late midseason bloomer.

CHART: Companion plants for daffodils (click here to download PDF)