Drop a hint: Seek out daffodils with a subtler shade

By Emma Townshend
Sunday 20 March 2011 01:00
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It's daffodil time again. Some folks find it hard to work up the requisite enthusiasm for daffs, whatever the great works of poetry say. "They're too yellow," apparently, according to a slightly pernickety graphic designer I know. Hmm. OK, yes, that searing daffodil colour is not for everyone. But these days you don't actually have to plump for stark chemical yellow. The narcissus family encompasses a whole realm of creams and whites, as well as pale spring-sunshine colours. And the scent can be spirit-liftingly good, if you pick the right varieties.

Even yellow can be good on occasion. A couple of years ago in darkest February I was showing a group around the gardens at Kew, including one visitor who had come all the way from Brazil. While the others ooed and aahed appropriately at the delights of the Palm House, wonderfully hot and steamy even when it's cold outside, this guy was distinctly nonplussed. "Yeah, I know this one," he observed, each time we stopped. When we arrived at a particularly gaudy orange hibiscus, he gave it one look and remarked, without enthusiasm, "I got that growing on my garage."

I had him down as terminally jaded. But then we stepped out the back door of the building into the cold wind of a so-called English "spring", and while everyone else busied themselves with doing up coats, I suddenly heard him exclaiming excitedly, "Oh my god! What are those yellow things? There are millions!", while getting out his camera to take photos. Which just goes to show that a host of daffodils can still inspire wonder in the unfamiliar.

The first daffodils to lift my heart this year were tiny little fellas about six inches high, on rockeries and in window boxes. These are familiar, but still wonderful, narcissus varieties "Tete à Tete", or "February Gold", both of which are star performers, starting early and lasting long. They definitely come under the bright-yellow umbrella – for those with colour allergies, try February Silver, a much whiter narcissus with the same sturdy trumpet and early-flowering habit.

It's around about March, though, that the scented narcissi come into their full powers. Forget the trumpetty-shaped daffodils of childhood: these are often tall, elegant stems studded with small, delicate flowers.

The first real star is "Avalanche", a neat white with darker yellow flower centres, and heavy with perfume. Each stem can produce a dozen flowers, making it real value for money, too. Plant some where you can see them and some where you can cut them to bring into the house.

One of the prettiest and most fragrant of these later narcissi is the unaptly named "Sir Winston Churchill", a delicate white slip of a thing. Flowering from March through to April, it has several blooms on each stem. Meanwhile, "Pheasant's Eye", with its lovely white flowers, each with a vivid orange centre and a potent fragrance that drifts across whole gardens, can flower until May, giving you a whole four months of daffodililty, should you wish it.

Nifty narcissi

Plan ahead

A few varieties will be available to buy now from garden centres and florists' shops, already planted up and growing in compost. But for a wider choice, you'll need to order next autumn's bulb catalogues from Broadleigh Gardens (broadleighbulbs.co.uk) or Avon Bulbs (avonbulbs.co.uk)

No time like the present

If you can't wait until next year, order a box of scented stems in the post, straight from the Scillies. Churchtown Farm will send 60 tissue-wrapped stems, including delivery in a sturdy box for £19 (scillyflowers.co.uk)

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