Yesterday I planted the last of my daffodils for the season. As I dropped the bulbs into their egg-shaped holes, I could already envision their bright yellow cups emerging like trumpets come spring. Which got me thinking: what is it about daffodils that make us so happy? Is it their bright color, incredible variety or sheer beauty in numbers? I set out to find the answer.
WHY WE LOVE THEM
Of course many of us are familiar with the Greek myth of Narcissus, who bears the same name as this popular spring flower. To punish him for not loving Echo, the gods condemned the handsome boy to falling in love with the first face he saw. That face happened to be his own, which Narcissus saw reflected in water.
Narcissism has since come to represent those who are obsessed with their appearance. But, while daffodils (scientific name Narcissus) are indeed beautiful, I would argue that they are hardly self-centered. Rather, they seem to be the ones giving us joy.
Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection in the water
A deeper dive reveals that the word narcissus arose from the Greek narco meaning ‘becoming numb’, which is also the root of the word narcotic. It’s true that daffodils are mildly toxic. While for some, the sudden appearance of yellow flowers on the heels of a gray winter can produce levels of euphoria. This may be a better explanation for the meaning behind their name.
Daffodils in early spring
But, the appeal of daffodils could be simply due to the color yellow itself, the brightest color that the human eye can see. There’s little doubt that the flower’s joyful appearance helps lift us out of our winter doldrums as its trumpets the return of warmer weather. And masses of blooming daffodils are ripe with the expectation of happiness.
A BIG FAMILY TREE
Depending on who you talk to, there are currently between 40 and 200 different daffodil species and over 32,000 registered cultivars. These species, subspecies and varieties of species are divided among 13 divisions. Known as the official classification system, it categorizes daffodils depending on the size and shape of the cups as compared to the petals.
Here’s a rundown of each and links to some standout varieties, recognized for their color, fragrance and overall beauty.
Division 1: Trumpet Daffodils
Characterized by large blooms and only one flower per stem, these cultivars have trumpets that are as long or longer than their petals. Some of the earliest to bloom, trumpet daffodils come in a wide variety of shapes and colors including Mount Hood, King Alfred and 4U2.
Trumpet daffodil ‘King Alfred’
Division 2: Large-Cupped
These varieties have cups that are more than one third, but less than equal to the length of their petals. Each stem bears a single flower. Large-cupped daffodils come in a wide range of colors and have flat, ruffled or trumpet-like shapes. Great cultivars include: Salome, Ice Follies and the exquisite, soft yellow Day Dream.
Large-cupped daffodil ‘Salome’
Division 3: Small-Cupped
These varieties have cups that are not more than one third the length of their petals. Each stem carries one medium-sized flower often in bright hues. Popular selections include: the exquisitely-shaped Eleanor Auchincloss, Ringtone and Barrett Browning.
Small-cupped daffodil ‘Barrett Browning’
Division 4: Doubles
Not everyone’s a fan of these unusually-shaped flowers with their frilly rows of petals that resemble carnations. Nevertheless, many have a sweet fragrance and work well under flowering shrubs and trees. Try pink and white Replete, tropical-colored Tahiti or soft pink Angélique.
Double daffodil ‘Tahiti’
Division 5: Triandrus
Tiny and low-growing, these daffodils are distinguished by their petals that flare back, exposing their bell-shaped cups. The delicate-looking flowers droop downwards like columbines. Triandrus daffodils prefer wetter conditions and produce 2 to 3 flowers per stem. Example include: the dainty white Thalia, soft yellow ‘Angel’s Breath‘ and bright yellow Hawera.
Triandrus daffodil ‘Thalia’
Division 6: Cyclamineus
Cyclamineus daffodils have smaller-sized trumpets and petals that flare back from the cup. They are prized for their early flowering and diminutive size, which makes them great for naturalizing in large masses. Great varieties include: Wisley, Peeping Tom and February Gold.
Cylcamineus daffodil ‘February Gold’
Division 7: Jonquils
Strongly fragrant with 3 or more small blooms per stem, jonquil daffodils are characterized by their flat, rounded petals. Traditionally yellow, they are also now available in white/yellow combinations. Narrow foliage give them a grass-like appearance. Able to endure hot southern sun, they’re great for naturalizing. Try Pueblo or Bell Song.
Yellow jonquil daffodils
Division 8: Tazettas
Producing fragrant clusters of up to 20 flowers per stem, tazetta daffodils are prized for their strong scent and heavy flower bearing. Great varieties include Geranium, Grand Primo and one of my personal favorites, Minnow.
Tazetta daffodil ‘Minnow’
Division 9: Poeticus
Also known as Pheasant’s Eye, Poet’s daffodils have very shallow, red-rimmed cups and bright white petals. Cups are usually bright colored, giving the impression of a central ring against a bright white backdrop (like an eye.) One flower per stem. Great varieties include: Actaea and Recurvus.
White Poet’s daffodil
Division 10: Bulbocodium
Also known as Petticoat daffodils for their lampshade-shaped cups, bulbocodiums grow to just 4 to 6 inches tall and have grass like foliage. The smallest of all the narcissus, the species is unusual in that its trumpet is exceptionally large in relation to its petals. Check out Yellow Hoop and Spoirot.
Yellow ‘Petticoat’ daffodils
Division 11: Split-Cupped
Split-cupped daffodils have cups that are cut more than have their length. Parts of the trumpet are splayed out and appear as another ring of petals. This cultivar is also sometimes called butterfly daffodil.
Division 12: Miscellaneous or Other
This division Includes all those daffodils that don’t fall into the above classifications plus natural species’ variants and hybrids.
Division 13: Species Distinguished by Botanical Name (Optional?)
Often left off of other lists, according to The Daffodil Society this division is nonetheless a part of the official daffodil classification system.
BEFORE YOUR PLANT
I realize that for we East Coasters, time is running out for planting spring bulbs. However, many parts of the country still have ample time to get some of these great cultivars in the ground before frost. All varieties need to be planted sometime in the fall before the ground freezes.
Once planted, all daffodil varieties are maintenance free and will naturalize year after year. Deer hate them. Just make sure to respect your bulb’s requirements for sun, part shade, dry or wet conditions. It makes a difference.
While there are many theories on when to remove the leaves, I ascribe to the one that advocates leaving the leaves on for about 6 weeks after blooms until they yellow. This allows the plant to absorb energy from sunlight which it redirects back down into the bulb to feed next year’s flowers.