Springtime dazzlers

field of bright yellow daffodils

A host of golden daffies is just the thing to perk you up after winter. - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Showy or shy, bold and brassy, or dainty and delicate.  Marion Welham looks at the long and short of daffodils

Daffodil bulbs are straightforward. You buy them, plant them and get a result. You might even call it a retail experience, but when you see your own pristine parade of blooms, you realise buying a jumper online comes nowhere near.

There’s something about the colour yellow that makes the heart sing. Not that all daffodils, properly called narcissi, are yellow of course. Apart from yellows, lemons, oranges and golds, there are pure white versions and plenty of cheerful mixtures. There are some 50 species of narcissus, mostly European, and thousands of varieties and hybrids, so how do we gardeners choose?

It's helpful to take a swift look at the dozen or so types of narcissi used by bulb suppliers to get the gist of what we’re looking for. The RHS Award of Merit, which applies to most of the bulbs mentioned here, is always worth looking out for as it means they’ve performed well in trials.

Trumpet daffodil ‘Mount Hood’

Trumpet daffodil ‘Mount Hood’ - Credit: Pixabay

First the Trumpets. When we recall “daffs” from childhood, whether from the garden, a walk in the park, or a cheerful vaseful on the kitchen table, it’s probably the trumpets that spring to mind. The yellow ‘Dutch Master’ is a good one but you can get paler versions too and ‘Mount Hood’ has a cool lemon trumpet that fades to white. Other groups with one flower per stem are the large-cupped and the small-cupped. You’re now into a whole range of shapes and colours. Some are elegantly simple, such as ‘Ice Follies’ or ‘Bantam’, and others more exotic, such as ‘Precocious’ with its frilly pink corona. 

Double daffodil ‘Tahiti’

Double daffodil ‘Tahiti’ - Credit: Pixabay

Double daffodil ‘Rip van Winkle’

Double daffodil ‘Rip van Winkle’ - Credit: Pixabay

Doubles get even more elaborate. The tropical-sounding ‘Tahiti’ is achingly pretty, while ‘Rip Van Winkle’ is a fluffy multi-petalled thing that looks nothing like a daffodil. With doubles, you get more than one flower per stem and that also goes for the smaller Triandrus narcissi. The orchid-like ‘Thalia’, the yellow ‘Hawera’ and the pure white ‘Ice Wings’ are well worth a try.

‘Tete-a-tete’ with ‘February Gold’ in the foreground

‘Tete-a-tete’ with ‘February Gold’ in the foreground - Credit: Marion Welham

Triandrus ‘Ice Wings’

Triandrus ‘Ice Wings’ - Credit: Pixabay

The popular and profuse ‘February Gold’ is similar to the petite and popular ‘Tete-a-Tete’ but twice the size and known as Cyclamineus narcissi. The early-flowering ‘Peeping Tom ’is another. All three feature in my own garden as I love the recurving petals that flare back from the cup as if caught by a gentle breeze. Another is ‘Jetfire’, a golden yellow with orange trumpet and scented too.

Cyclamineus daffodil ‘Peeping Tom’

Cyclamineus daffodil ‘Peeping Tom’ - Credit: Marion Welham

 Dwarf cyclamineus daffodil ‘Jetfire’.

Dwarf cyclamineus daffodil ‘Jetfire’. - Credit: Pixabay

If it’s fragrance you’re after, the Jonquilla narcissi is the type to go for with the delicate ‘Sailboat’ and soft lemon ‘Sabrosa’ being two award winners. Tazetta types have fragrant clusters of at least four flowers per stem. My ‘Minnow’ was planted and forgotten until this lovely little stalwart and scented creature appeared in one of my flower beds. That’s the joy of bulbs!

The tiny Bulbocodium, the so-called hoop petticoat daffodil, grows to around six inches and is dominated by a large funnel shaped trumpet, while the Split Corona group takes on frills and forms that may well grab you from the street. In a group of its own is Poeticus, the lovely white Poet’s narcissus, with its tiny yellow cup edged with orange. The common name is Old Pheasant’s Eye, an apt description and easy to remember. 

Narcissi poeticus, the Old Pheasants Eye narcissus.

Narcissi poeticus, the Old Pheasants Eye narcissus. - Credit: Pixabay

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Talking of poets, we can be pretty sure that the “host of golden daffodils” Wordsworth saw in the Lake District were the native wild daffodils Narcissus pseudonarcissus, commonly called Lent lily. This species, about 25 cm tall, has pale yellow outer petals, with a darker central trumpet and greyish green leaves. Sadly, Suffolk is not the best place to find the Lent lily in the wild so what you see on verges are likely to be garden varieties rather than this one British native. It’s always best to leave natural habitats alone for the wild flowers and creatures they support.

Narcissus pseudonarcissus, the wild native daffodil known as the Lent lily.

Narcissus pseudonarcissus, the wild native daffodil known as the Lent lily. - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

Conservation charity Plantlife reckons the Lent lily was one of the most common wild flowers to be found in the English countryside up until the mid-19th century when its decline may have been due to the fall in cash crops grown by locals to capitalise on the daffodil’s popularity. Followed by intensive agriculture in counties such as Suffolk, the poor old Lent Lily didn’t stand a chance. On a brighter note, I met a gardener last year who said a friend gave her 10 Lent lily bulbs which she planted under her walnut tree and got 10 flowers. Two years later she counted 50. Cyclamineus daffodils are also good for naturalising in this way if you have a grassy area in your garden. And if you haven’t, well daffodils look good in any border or container and the rules couldn’t be simpler.

How to plant

There are soil preferences for particular varieties but generally they prefer moisture to drought and good drainage is the thing to watch for if you’re on heavy clay. Once you’ve sourced your bulbs, early September is not too soon to start planting. The best advice I ever had was to use a long-handled bulb planter. This will help you plant at the right depth - about three times the height of the bulb - especially when planting in grass.

Random groups of odd numbers look best. If you’re not sure where your existing bulbs are, you can plant new ones in a pot or a raised bed and move them into position once the leaves on your current bulbs are clearly visible. If you’re keen to feed your bulbs, you can sprinkle a general fertiliser on the soil as the foliage starts to emerge.

Daffodils in their thousands line the Lime Walk at Nowton Country Park, near Bury St Edmunds.

Daffodils in their thousands line the Lime Walk at Nowton Country Park, near Bury St Edmunds. - Credit: Nowton Park

Bulbs in containers need regular watering and a high potassium tomato feed every 10 days until the foliage dies down wouldn’t go amiss. If you avoid waterlogging, drought, deep shade or overcrowding, your daffodils will thrive and you can enjoy cutting a bunch of fresh, fragrant beauties for a spring display indoors. Deadhead regularly so the energy goes back into the bulb unless you want them to self seed.

Foliage hangs around for weeks, but resist the temptation to cut back the leaves before they die naturally. That includes tying them in a knot! Choose smaller varieties such as ‘Tete-a-tete’ if you want a tidier finale. However small your garden, a gallant group of daffodils with their sunny disposition imparts a message of hope after the gloom of winter months.

Best places to see daffodils

A walk in the park or a garden open to the public is the best way to see an array of daffodils planted for the enjoyment of all-comers.

Kentwell Hall, Long Melford CO10 9BA
Daffodils and spring bulbs can be seen at Kentwell Hall in Long Melford, open 11am-3pm each day from March 19 to April 3. Booking is recommended any time up to 10.30am on the day of your visit. If you pre-book you get a £2 discount per ticket.  Arrive any time from opening until last entry at 2pm.

Nowton Country Park , Bury Road, Nowton IP29 5LU
March is daffodil month at Nowton Country Park. Walk down the Lime Avenue lined with a carpet of some 100,000 daffodils under 40-metre lime trees. Trumpet daffodils planted in 1989 include the iconic, golden-yellow ‘King Alfred’. Open daily 8.30am-6pm.

Sutton Hoo, National Trust IP12 3DJ 
See daffodils on the Sutton Hoo estate walks now open daily with car parking machine in operation on weekdays. The site is fully open at weekends with café, shop and other attractions. After March 26, the site will be fully open every day with the usual admission prices. NT members enjoy free admission and car parking.

Butley Woods, near Orford, IP12 3PB

Fringed by Rendlesham Forest’s fir plantations, Butley has a fine display of wildflowers including hosts of daffodils, followed by bluebells later in spring. Nearby is the extraordinary Staverton Thicks, ancient woodland with some of Europe’s oldest trees. 

Ickworth Park Gardens, Horringer, Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, IP29 5QE

Spring at Ickworth sees swathes of gold appearing on the estate as masses of heritage daffodils pop up throughout the pleasure grounds. The park contains some of the best examples of ancient specimen trees including oak, beech and hornbeam so is well worth a visit any time of year. Check the website for opening times and accessibility. nationaltrust.org.uk/ickworth