Spring awakening: Rejoice in the daffodils and narcissi that are starting to bloom
Saturday 19 March 2011
How glorious this moment is in the garden, with the worst of the winter behind us (I'm not going so far as to say it's gone) and the best months still to come. Everywhere I look, the lush, almost edible shoots of forgotten plants are sticking their heads above the ground, feeling the air, wondering whether it's safe to push on. Of course plants shouldn't ever be forgotten but at this season, I'm constantly surprised by what I see. Did I really plant that erythronium there, right underneath the big box bush?
And whose crazy idea was it to put scillas in the middle of a large clump of bleeding heart Dicentra spectabilis 'Alba'? Crazy, but very effective, the searing blue of the scillas set off by the light, rich, pea-like green of the dicentra's stems and leaves. It won't flower until May, by which time the scillas will have dived underground again.
I suppose that's why so many of the surprises at this time of year are provided by bulbs. When they've done their spring thing, they sensibly get off the stage, having no other songs to sing. Then we forget about them. Or at least I do, which is why in the autumn I constantly find myself trying to plant one lot of bulbs on top of another lot's heads.
The daffodils in our garden started in January with 'Rijnveld's Early Sensation', which is exceptional only because it blooms at such an extraordinary season. The trumpet is a slightly darker shade of yellow than the surrounding frill of petals and it lasts a long time in flower. The real daffodil season is happening now, and although, compared with tulips, the poor things are rather limited in what they can provide, you cannot have spring without them. They are much easier to establish in a garden than tulips, which belong to hotter, drier lands further east than the daffodil's European home.
There are at least 50 wild species of narcissus, so, with that number of building blocks available it is not surprising that breeders have produced so many different varieties. Generally, I prefer small daffodils to big ones, and wild-looking ones like 'Actaea', (a beautiful red-eyed narcissus, similar to but earlier than the well-known 'Pheasant Eye') to beefy types like 'Bravoure'.
I've also been building up a few clumps of the old daffodils collected from churchyards and abandoned gardens by Alan Street of Avon Bulbs. From him, I had the lovely 'White Lady', a sweet thing with papery-thin cream petals and a small yellow cup. This was introduced before 1897 by the Reverend George Engleheart, who did his daffodil-breeding at home, first at Chute Forest near Andover, then at Little Clarendon at Dinton near Salisbury. 'White Lady' has a light flimsiness about it which makes it ideal for semi-wild plantings. I have it among clumps of brunnera and the beautiful fern Polystichum setiferum 'Pulcherrimum Bevis', which has retained its evergreen fronds even through this last testing winter.
New to me this season is 'Seagull', another old narcissus first introduced by Engleheart, with a frill of fine-textured petals round a small reddish-orange cup. Both these grow to about 45cm (18in) and will flower next month.
The leaves of daffodils contain minute but razor-sharp crystals of calcium oxalate, which is why grazing animals, such as deer and rabbits, leave them alone (why have so few bulbs developed this useful defence?). This makes them ideal for naturalising, especially if you use them in an area where you can leave the grass to grow long before a late-summer cut. The grass disguises the noisy death of the daffodil foliage and allows species such as N. bulbocodium, N. cyclamineus and N. pseudonarcissus to ripen their seed and cast it about (in the wild, most species increase by seeding rather than by producing offsets).
But wherever daffodils are planted, the leaves must be allowed to die down naturally, a process that can take at least six weeks. Where daffodils are planted in a lawn, itchy gardeners are usually longing to mow the whole lot down too soon. Choose light-limbed daffodils for naturalising, species such as the Lent lily, N. pseudonarcissus, or 'Actaea' which looks wonderful planted in great swathes under apple trees. In fine turf, you might succeed with the hoop petticoat daffodil, N. bulbocodium (I never have...) or try the easier N. cyclamineus which has petals swept back like the ears of a piglet fronting a storm. It is a very appealing trait. In general, most daffodils derived from N. cyclamineus ('February Gold', 'Itzim', 'Jack Snipe', 'Jenny') do well in grass. They like growing cool, not hot. The best effects come from masses of a few different kinds, not a few of masses.
N. pseudonarcissus is easy to plant as the bulbs are relatively small, but it needs time to settle. It's happiest in dappled shade, as is the similar-looking 'Topolino'. Both grow to about 20cm (8in) and both have long, paleish yellow trumpets and creamy white petals. But the real key to success when naturalising daffodils is this tricky business of the dying leaves. They must not be tied up in bundles and they most certainly must not be cut down. From the leaves comes all the sustenance that the bulbs need to build themselves up for the following season.
If clumps of daffodils show leaf but no flower, it is worthwhile splitting them. Mark the under-performing clumps with a cane and before the foliage dies down altogether, dig up the whole lot and separate them into smaller handfuls. Replant them in fresh ground with some bonemeal added for encouragement. An even better time to split and replant is in early August, while the daffodils are completely dormant, but by that time the cane (and the clump) will have disappeared and you will have forgotten where to dig.
The best place to see daffodils is the National Daffodil Collection at Trevarno, Cornwall where more than 2,500 different kinds are planted out in the garden and grounds. The collection is a joint venture between two Cornish growers Ron Scamp and Mark Vandervliet and two Dutch daffodil men, Carlos and Karol Vanderveek. Their flowers will be blazing away all this month and next. Trevarno is at Crowntown, nr Helston, Cornwall TR13 0RU, tel: 01326 574274, trevarno.co.uk. The gardens are open every day (10.30am-5pm), admission £6.85.
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