Field Notes 7

Oklahoma BY RUSSELL STUDEBAKER / Tulsa, Oklahoma, Zone 6

Cherokee Daffodils

ONE MARCH, while visiting a 19th-century Cherokee courthouse in rural Oklahoma, my eye wandered down the gravel road to a nearby Indian Territory cemetery. In it I found a few tall, aged grave markers etched with lichens and moss, with some short clumps of small, yellow trumpet daffodils flowering at their bases. While daffodils blooming in March are not an unusual sight, I was struck that down the road, hundreds more of these same daffodils were in full flower around some abandoned Cherokee home sites.

I wondered whether this narcissus had a name. I consulted some bulb-expert friends, Brent Heath of Brent and Becky’s Bulbs, and Scott Kunst of Old House Gardens. Both told me that these were Narcissus pseudonarcissus, also known by its common name of Lent lily. Its cultivation in England dates back to 1200, and since then it has seeded itself across much of continental Europe. Some speculate that the Lent lily arrived in the South with the earliest European settlers.

I was intrigued by the presence of these daffodils at Cherokee gravesites. Several years later, I chanced upon some Cherokee cemeteries near Tahlequah, Oklahoma, in which I found five different old daffodils: ‘Van Scion’, ‘Campernelle’, N. pseudonarcissus, ‘Early Louisiana’, and ‘Butter and Eggs’. Why were there so many different heirloom cultivars here? Where had they come from, and who had planted them?

I could see why they were flourishing. The soils were gravelly and poor but well drained—conditions that are to their liking. Since daffodils are toxic to animals, they went uneaten by rodents and grazing livestock. A local resident told me that the first mowing of the cemeteries was near the end of May, shortly before Memorial Day. This would give most early-blooming daffodils sufficient time to build reserves for their next year’s flowering.

Any number of explanations could be given for why these same daffodils appear at historic Cherokee sites throughout Oklahoma. Surely any settler heading west could have brought along daffodil bulbs.

Though I haven’t found any evidence to support my idea, I like to believe that these old daffodils were planted by Cherokees at the graves of their loved ones. Perhaps there is a historian somewhere who has studied this phenomenon, and has more knowledge of the subject than I do. Whoever planted them, it is astounding how well they have endured, untended, season after season, and have multiplied into thousands of flowers—a remembrance of those who lie beneath them.

To do in the garden

  • In early March apply preemergent herbicides to control crab grass. Now is also the time to plant deciduous and evergreen trees, shrubs, and roses.

  • March 21st marks the official first day of spring, so put up new birdhouses and clean out old ones.

  • Divide daylilies, phlox, daisies, yarrow, columbine, sweet William, and ferns. But save some time to plant strawberries, spinach, lettuce, and cabbages, as well.

Worth growing

Senecio obovatus

Greatly underplanted, native ragwort, groundsel, or squaw weed is one tough plant that easily takes Oklahoma’s summer heat and drought in lightly shaded woodlands. In gardens, it gradually spreads by rhizomes, forming a low and compact evergreen groundcover. It flowers in March here on 10-inch stalks, and continues for more than four weeks. Native from New Hampshire to Ontario and Michigan and south to Florida and Kansas. USDA Zones 5–8. Sources, page 88.

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