by BRIAN MINTER
November 2, 2007
I’ve always been rather fond of narcissus, but I’ll never forget the afternoon I spent in Holland at a breeder’s field that was blooming with over 1500 narcissus varieties. It was an unbelievable opportunity to observe some old friends and to meet some new ones. It was also a chance to see how each variety handled cool, rainy and windy weather. With very little time, I was almost running through the field, notating varieties with outstanding color, vigor and form, then comparing them to the old standbys I’ve known for so many years. Trying to meet and remember so many new faces in a few short hours is a very frustrating experience, but I did learn quite a few valuable lessons.
Although narcissus will grow almost anywhere in the Northern Hemisphere, they prefer cooler rooting conditions and love a sandy, well-drained soil. One of the first things I did in the field was dig down into the soil to feel its texture. It was reclaimed sea land which had become a well-drained sandy loam. The narcissus roots were long, vigorous and extremely healthy. It’s under these conditions that they naturalize and multiply so well.
There was no question that the very large flowered varieties (and some of them were absolutely gigantic) were very showy, but the wind and rain had taken their toll on them. Not only were they shorter lived, but also many of the huge flowered varieties, and even many of the double ones, were laying over. The mid-sized double and single varieties stood up very well and created perhaps the most colourful effect, but as I expected the smaller sized varieties were the most prolific and outlasted everything else. It occurred to me that within the eleven generally recognized families or divisions of narcissus, there are three basic types that gardeners should use in three different locations.
The narcissus varieties bred for their extra large or unusual blossoms make wonderful additions to our gardens but they should be used as just that – as novelties. Varieties like ‘Modern Art’, the large, double orange and scarlet; ‘Tahiti’, the orange centered yellow; and ‘Ice King’, the double white and soft yellow are real garden beauties, but they need a location where they have some protection from wind and rain. Plant them beside a windbreak or if possible, under an evergreen or other garden feature, like a birdbath, where they will find shelter. The very large flowered ‘trumpet’ varieties, like ‘Golden Harvest’ and ‘Gigantic Star’, make real conversation pieces as cut flowers and quite an impression in the garden where they require the same type of shelter. There are a number of exquisite novelties, like these, that deserve a special location in your garden. Some are more weather tolerant than others, but most will require a little more care and shelter. Also, as a rule of thumb, they do not bloom as prolifically nor do they naturalize as well as mainstream narcissus.
The real frontline garden performers are the medium-sized and multi-flowered narcissus varieties. There are dozens and dozens of varieties that, with a little care, multiply and bloom year after year and stand up well under wet and windy spring conditions. The ‘cyclamineus’ varieties, like ‘February Gold’ and my favourite, ‘Tete-a-Tete’, are among the toughest and most weather tolerant. ‘Small cupped’ varieties, like ‘Barrett Browning’, are very prolific. The ‘poeticus’ variety of narcissus is one of the last to flower each spring, and ‘Actaea’ (Pheasant Eye), with its white petals and yellow, red-rimmed cup, is the largest.
Little narcissus that are cute as a button and sometimes just as small are the ones that multiply well and last the longest. They too need a special location. From the tiniest little species, Narcissus bulbocodium and the amazing bunch-flowering ‘Golden Bells’ to the tiny but vigorous ‘jonquillas’, like ‘Baby Moon’ and ‘Sugarbush’, there are many varieties of small narcissus that add pure charm to any garden. These varieties need to be placed in rock gardens or among miniature azaleas and rhododendrons where they can be enjoyed as a contrast to the other small plants around them. Give them a little pocket somewhere in a well-drained sandy spot, and they will delight you for years.
Unfortunately, I can’t mention all the many varieties that have wonderfully strong flowering characteristics, but try lots of narcissus in your garden and make your own decisions next spring.