Daffodil Dreaming: Top Varieties To Plant Before Winter

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.

Look for Apricot Whirl, Lemon Beauty and tiny coral-pink Shrike.

Split-cupped 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.

 

What To Do If Your Spring Bulbs Come Up Too Early

(Last week it was 70 degrees, now it’s 20)

Let’s face it. It’s hard not to stress when your daffodils start coming up mid-winter during a warm spell. As weather becomes more erratic, early growth is becoming more and more common in spring bulbs. Not to worry, though. Your plants have seen it all before. And they’re built to handle a few temperature swings.

The underground world of bulbs

To understand why spring bulbs can tolerate a little early growth, it helps to take a peek underground.

Just like a seed, a single bulb contains the entire life cycle of a plant. This includes roots, food storage “leaves” and a flowering shoot. As soon as you plant it in the fall, a spring bulb starts growing.

The action begins in the bottom part of the bulb called the basal stem. During the winter months, roots begin emerging from the stem to penetrate the surrounding soil. As they grow, they absorb water and other nutrients, which they store in the fleshy leaves of the bulb called scales.

In some flower species like alliums, a thin papery covering called the tunic protects the bulb’s scales from damage and drying out.

Papery thin tunic keeps bulbs from drying out

In addition to food storage, the scales provide protection to the flowering shoot, which contains all of the above-ground parts of the plant, including stems, leaves and flowers. During the winter months, the shoot slowly grows upwards within the bulb underground.

Finally in the spring, the bulb’s biological clock tells its leaves to break through the soil, where they begin converting sunlight into chemical energy the plant uses to grow. Approximately one month later, the flowering stems begin to emerge.

At this stage in the process, the key thing to remember is this: Leaf development occurs independently of flower development.

The leaves might jump the gun, but flowering shoots need an extended period of time (between 5 and 7 weeks) before they begin sending their stems up towards the surface. Before that happens, the bulb has most likely weathered the warm spell and resumed dormancy.

Strategies for protecting early growth

If you see foliage poking up out of the ground too early, don’t worry. A cold snap may cause leaves to yellow and die back, but the bulb will wait things out and send up new growth once temperatures warm up again.

There are a few strategies, however, that you can implement now to slow things down while adding an extra layer of protection to the flower shoot.

1. COVER YOUR PLANT

Covering the soil around your spring bulbs will provide insulation against frigid temperatures and drying winter winds. Try mulch, straw, bark chips, leaves or pine needles.

Or, if the plant is budding too early, try draping a cloth over it (securing it above the plant with stakes.) Remove the drape during the day so the foliage can absorb sunlight to warm back up.

2. WATER DURING DRY SPELLS

Although they’ll rot with too much water, if there’s been a dry period for a long period of time, a little extra water during the day helps bulbs grow. Make sure your soil has good drainage, though.

3.  IF FLOWERS START TO APPEAR

If the weather continues to stay unseasonably warm, your spring bulbs may start to produce flowers. Don’t worry. Even if frost kills off some of the initial buds, it usually won’t affect flowering in the coming months.

4. PLANT BULBS LATE IN THE FALL

The later in the fall you plant, the longer the bulb will take to sprout come spring. Wait until the temperature is cold enough (40°F or below at night) to plant your spring bulbs. This will ensure they are fully dormant. I plant my many different daffodil varieties as late as mid December here in Maryland.

Finally, make sure to plant your bulbs at three times their height in depth with the base down and the bud up. Planting bulbs too shallow can lead to premature growth.

For a list of ten popular spring bulbs and when and how to plant them, click here.

Happy planting!