DAFFODILS FOR SOUTHERN GARDENS

These classic varieties tolerate both heat and heavy soils

by scott ogden

A CYCLE OF RENEWAL REPEATS EACH FALL in my Austin garden. Temperate weather returns, so it is once again pleasant to be outside. Rain has usually fallen, ending the annual summer drought, so plants are revived and in flower, and by early November the earth swells in curious mounds. A little digging (or a good rain) reveals the subterranean forces beneath these tiny tectonic eruptions: not the pressures of molten magma, but masses of succulent leaves wresting themselves from the clay. The thick colonies will soon emerge into the autumn sun, revealing the unmistakable blunt-tipped foliage of returning narcissi.

AN EARLY START

Gardeners in northern states wait for snows to melt before scanning the earth for bulb foliage. For southerners, it’s typical to have full stands of daffodil leaves before Christmas, and, many times, flowers as well—if the gardener has planted the narcissi best adapted to this climate. Getting an early start on foliage assures these cool-season perennials a sufficient season to store food in their starchy, brown-coated bulbs for bloom the following year. Since temperatures warm quickly in southern springs, late-leafing narcissi (including many popular varieties of northern gardens, such as the trumpet and small-cupped daffodils) often find it challenging to replenish their bulbs here before the heat sets in.

SPRING IN JANUARY

The earliness of the southern daffodil season also proves important in other ways, for it prolongs bloom in this mild, fickle climate. Winter-blooming daffodils may need to dodge an occasional arctic blast and flowers might be spoiled some years, but, with the usual cool temperatures prevalent in a southern winter, early-blooming daffodils can stay in flower for weeks, just as in their Mediterranean homelands. In contrast, a narcissus blossom might last mere days in a fast-warming southern April. For this reason, in the South it is the most precocious daffodils that give the best garden value.

HEIRLOOMS AND WILDFLOWERS

A drive through the southeastern countryside in February ably brings travelers face to face with an array of cluster-flowered narcissi, trumpeting daffodils, and sweet-scented jonquils set against the green winter grasses. These early blossoms sprout like wildflowers in fields and the flowerbeds of old neighborhoods, sometimes marking the boundaries of former homesteads. As garden subjects, many of these heirloom daffodils remain unsurpassed.

Using Narcissus Divisions as a Guide

With several hundred varieties to consider, southern gardeners will find it useful to become familiar with the horticultural divisions established by the American Daffodil Society. Although devised mostly to facilitate flower show competitions, the various classes also reflect some of the natural ancestry of hybrid daffodils. Gardeners can therefore use them to make a few generalizations. For instance, most of the trumpets (division 1) can be expected to fail in the South, save a few of the earliest varieties, as these types are generally subject to basal rot unless offered the elusive “good drainage.” Daffodils in the large-cup class (division 2) usually do better, with the earliest types offering some of the best performers in the South. Cultivars tolerant of heavy soils may be found in the triandrus section (division 5), within the jonquil hybrid group (division 7), and among the tazettas (division 8). Truly precocious flowers appear among the cyclamineus cultivars (division 6) and in the tazetta class, as well as among the species and wild hybrids that lurk everywhere in old southern gardens.–S.O.

The Challenge of Southern Soils

A pitfall for many daffodils comes from the peculiar soils that develop in the South. The bulb literature invariably states that narcissi require good drainage, something not always easy for southerners to offer. The warm. humid climate devours humus, often resulting in tight, compacted earth. Moreover, native rocks may weather to form impermeable clay hardpans (which often harbor dreaded fungi that induce basal rot) or, worse, in-fertile drought-prone sands patrolled by pocket gophers. To resolve the conflict between rodents and bulbs, the only recourse may be to take up container gardening. On the brighter side, there are many narcissi, such as the jonquil hybrids, that cope well with the seasonally waterlogged soils of the South. Nor is a lack of organic matter necessarily a problem; in fact, the humus-poor soils of the Southeast resemble some of those found along Mediterranean shores where certain wild narcissi are native. –S.O.

TAZETTAS Among the ancient varieties, the paperwhite, Narcissus tazetta var.papyraceus, is one well known to modern gardeners. With a sweet, musky scent, these are popular potted bulbs for winter forcing and grow readily as garden flowers in the South, with blooms arriving as early as Thanksgiving and invariably before Christmas. Clear white, starry blossoms cluster at the tops of their 12-to 18-inch stems.

Several different clones of N. tazetta lurk in southern gardens, many dating back over 500 years. Most appear to have arisen from crosses between the paperwhite and its more frost-tender relation, the gold-cupped Chinese sacred lily, N. tazetta var. orientalis. This sweet-scented favorite and its exquisitely fragrant double forms, ‘Double Roman’ and ‘Constantinople’, along with the yellow-petaled ‘Soleil d’Or’, are strong-growing bulbs that perform well in Florida gardens and along the Gulf Coast.

In the Middle and Upper South, the most familiar representative of the cluster-flowered, or “polyanthus,” narcissi is ‘Grand Primo’. Thick clumps of dark green foliage sprout from its large, round bulbs, enduring hard frosts to serve as foils for the abundant alabaster blossoms, each with an ivory cup. For many years, this old clone appeared in the trade under the name ‘Grand Monarque’, and it is sometimes sold as ‘Scilly White’. Old clumps abandoned for decades reliably produce flowers from every bulb, making ‘Grand Primo’ invaluable for naturalized plantings. The pleasant-scented blossoms avoid the overpowering musk fragrance of the paperwhite, so gardeners can enjoy them indoors as well as in the garden. A similar, semidwarf tazetta with the grandiose French title ‘Grand Primo Citroniere’ offers a cute, compact growth habit and more yellow in the cups of the flowers, but combines these improvements with an unfortunate scent, something like a mix of paperwhites and turnips.

‘Italicus’ (also known as ‘Minor Monarque’) is another early tazetta common in southern gardens and readily identified by its starry flowers with pointed petals and citron-yellow cups. ‘Avalanche’, a yellow-cupped variety sometimes passed under the name “Seventeen Sisters,” also makes a fine garden plant. ‘Erlicheer’, a double-flowered sport of the old variety ‘Pearl’, offers fragrant clusters of white blooms like miniature gardenias.

JONQUILS More beloved in the South, however, are the tiny golden blossoms of the jonquils (N. jonquilla), sweet-scented miniatures originally from southwestern Europe. The leaves of these sprightly daffodils display the slender, rounded shape of a rush, as reflected in the specific epithet. (The Latin word for rush is juncus, so the diminutive jonquilla translates as “little rush.”) Jonquils also resemble rushes in their habit of growing in moist, even flooded conditions. They often seed into swales along roadways, where, in wet seasons, they sometimes flower in standing water.

Along with the tiny jonquils, campernelles (N. xodorus) carry swaths of fragrant gold to many neighborhoods, often thriving on stiff, damp clay. This ancient hybrid preserves the narrowed foliage and the honeyed fragrance of its jonquil parent, but produces larger clusters of starry, dog-eared blossoms. Arriving in February or March, these buttery yellow flowers, which paint more gold over gardens here than any others, are the ones spoken of in wistful tones by older southern gardeners as “jonquils.”

LENT LILIES The other big source of daffodil yellow in the Middle and Upper South comes from the multitudinous colonies of Lent lilies, N. pseudonarcissus. These are wild trumpets that send up short stems in late winter bearing perfect miniature blooms, each with a projecting golden cup surrounded by six swirling pale yellow petals. The flowers possess a windswept appearance in keeping with their habit of growing in rough meadows, often when snow, ice, or sleet still dots the grass. More charming blooms could hardly be imagined.

PRIMROSE PEERLESS Old gardens and meadows also harbor an old wild cross once known as the “primrose peerless” (N. xin-comparabilis). These graceful flowers combine the luminous yellows of the Lent lily with the wide-open form and small, orange-rimmed cups of the poet’s narcissus (N. poeticus). Although later in flower than many of the old narcissi, the peerless daffodils still manage to bloom early enough to give a good account in the Middle South.

DOUBLES Often blooming at the same time are several strange double-flowered daffodils. These many-petaled forms of jonquils (‘Queen Anne’,‘Pencrebar’), campernelles (N. xodorus ‘Plenus’), Lent lilies (‘Van Sion’), and the primrose peerless (‘Orange Phoenix’) are more curious than beautiful, but gardeners love them nonetheless, giving them affectionate nicknames like “butter and eggs” or “bacon and eggs” for their jumbled masses of gold and yellow petals. These types need a mild, gentle spring to open properly (something they rarely get in the South), but even in seasons when they fail to bloom properly, their persistent clumps of swollen buds remain endearing.

Like most of the daffodils adapted to the South, these varieties may not ever win prizes on a show bench, but they do what garden flowers of all kinds need to do: they prosper without fuss under the regimes created by local soil and climate. And what is most important, they touch the hearts of gardeners. H

For sources of plants featured in this article, turn to page 76.

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