For The Answer
The world seems sad
mid winter's gloom,
But all is well
when the jonquils bloom.
Late winter is a hard time for gardeners. The last of the defiant water oak leaves have all been raked. All of last years spent hydrangea blossoms have been removed. And the once elegant miscanthus clumps have been cut to the ground. If one more seed catalog arrives in the mail it will have to be burned, as the horticultural mind can only hold so much pent up enthusiasm for next year's garden. Even in the South, gardeners look for any sign that spring will finally arrive as promised after last years brief annual visit. The persistent heckling of the winter honeysuckle won't do. Its rebellious purpose is to torment winter until it leaves in disgust.
Then it happens. Those green little shoots, some showing since Thanksgiving, begin to whittle away at what's left of winter with dainty clusters of intoxicatingly fragrant blossoms. The jonquils are here!
Perhaps no floral symbol epitomizes the impending arrival of a Southern spring as does the blooming of our assorted Narcissus species.
The genus Narcissus is a member of the Amaryllis family. The word narcissus is derived from the Greek word narke, meaning numbness or stupor. Some attribute the naming of the flower to its narcotic fragrance while others debate that it is associated with the poisonous nature of the bulbs, a built in defense against nibbling rodents. Of course in classical mythology it was the young lad Narcissus who was so enamored with himself that he stared at his reflection in a pool of water until he eventually turned into his namesake flower. A serious case of narcissism don't you think?
Most Narcissus species are natives of southern France, Spain, and the surrounding Mediterranean areas. This explains their love of our dry summers and wet winter. Many species of Narcissus have been cultivated for hundreds, even thousands, of years.
Without exception the most common species found growing throughout Texas today were brought over from Europe by the early colonists and distributed westward by settlers from the East. Invariably, the naturalized types found growing with reckless abandon (old homesites, cemeteries, even roadsides!) throughout the state are mostly wild species or hybrids between these species. The word naturalize is just a nice term for "run amuck" or "go wild." Its what the daffodils are always doing in the Dutch bulb promotional material. It's one step past a perennial which simply means returns each year. There's no substituting for wild genetic vigor in any plant. As a matter of fact, it's difficult to find any old homestead in the South that doesn't have at least one of the "big three," jonquils, narcissus, or daffodils still thriving on site.
What's the difference between jonquils, narcissus, and daffodils you ask? It's an age old question. Botanically speaking, they're all different species of the genus Narcissus. To the average gardener however the differences are fairly distinct.
True jonquils (Narcissus jonquilla) have dark green, round, rush-like leaves and cluster of small, fragrant, early, yellow blossoms. Almost all yellow cluster flowered Narcissus are lumped into this group including jonquil hybrids. Jonquils and their kin are most common in East Texas and throughout the acid, well drained soils of the mid-South (roughly, zone 8, from Tyler to the East Coast). Even more common than the straight species, which often spreads by seed, is the campernelle jonquil (Narcissus x odorus), a natural hybrid between the wild jonquil and the wild daffodil. It's normally sterile and only grows where you plant it (or drop it). Its a bigger plant with two to three large, fragrant, yellow jonquils above big jonquil foliage which is slightly flattened and has a bluish gray cast. Also frequently found is the "Texas Star" jonquil (Narcissus x intermedius), a natural hybrid between the wild jonquil and the wild narcissus. It has short, pale yellow flowers above very flattened, green jonquil foliage. It was painted by the great painter, Redoute, in the early 1800's.
The common name narcissus usually refers to the early blooming, white, powerfully fragrant, cluster flowered varieties of Narcissus tazetta. This includes, but is not limited to, what we commonly call paperwhites (Narcissus tazetta papyraceous). Naturalized paperwhites are limited to areas near the coast or other protected microclimates due to their extremely early bloom time (often between Thanksgiving and Christmas). Narcissus are common all along the gulf coast including alkaline areas (roughly zone 8 and 9, from San Antonio to the East Coast). Also limited to the gulf coast is the Chinese sacred lily (Narcissus tazetta orientalis) a giant, powerfully sweet narcissus which comes in a single form as well as a double form. Further inland, Narcissus tazetta italicus is frequently encountered. It has slightly twisted creamy white flowers and with a pale yellow cup. Like all narcissus, it blooms best during a mild winter. Throughout the rest of the state the most common form encountered is Narcissus tazetta 'Grand Primo.' Its wide spread adaptability is due to the fact that it's the latest blooming narcissus, usually between early February and early March. It has big bold clusters of powerfully sweet, creamy-white blossoms which make excellent cut as well as dried flowers. All narcissus have wide flattened, green foliage with the exception of paperwhites which are blue-gray.
The name daffodil is reserved for the large, normally yellow, single trumpet flowered cultivars of Narcissus pseudonarcissus. Without a doubt, modern, large flowered daffodils are the most popular type of Narcissus planted today,. Daffodils are most commonly found in the acid, well drained soils of the upper-South (roughly zones 6, 7, and 8, from Texarkana to the East Coast). Although big daffodils are most commonly planted, they happen to be the least adapted for naturalizing. The most common naturalized form found is once again, the wild species known as "the lent lily" or "early daffodil." It's considerably smaller and earlier than its modern cousins with pale yellow petals around a gold cup. And like all daffodils it has thick, flattened, blue-gray foliage It's also much tougher and adapted than its larger showier kin. It too can spread by seed on good soils.
Without exception, the best types of Narcissus for naturalizing are the early blooming species and hybrids. In addition to their early bloom, they tend to be cluster or small flowered. This early bloom (January through March) ensures that the foliage can mature before mowing begins or hot weather sets in which kills the foliage prematurely. Any Narcissus that bloom after March 1 in Texas is not likely to be a long lived perennial. It's extremely critical for successful perennialization or naturalization that the foliage be allowed to grow, mature, and ripen naturally. This means it should never be cut off or tied in cute little knots. Each years foliage stores up the food reserves for the next years bloom. Disguising the maturing foliage is up to the wits of the gardener. In meadows, spring grass, wild flowers, and clover often do the job. In flower beds, annuals or emerging perennials planted nearby can do the trick. Another ploy is to plant Narcissus along fence rows, along the edges of beds, or at the base of trees or landscape structures so that they won't be mowed until the dead foliage is edged at a later date.
Although commonly grown and seen, finding commercial sources for true naturalizing Narcissus is a problem. Reputable commercial sources are of course the easiest. Keep in mind that Southern grown stock is genetically superior in vigor to the commercial Dutch forms. Swapping, trading, and "bulb rustling" from soon to be dozed vacant lots are other options. When it comes to "rustling" the advice of an expert should be noted. Scott Kunst, garden historian and owner of Old House Gardens says "bulb rustling should always be done with permission and sensitivity. I believe historic plants are akin to endangered species and should be approached with compared ethics and care. Let your enthusiasm be tempered by the recognition that a plant that seems terribly "at risk" has probably already survived right where it is for decades if not generations, which is more than most of us can guarantee in our own gardens. Always collect the smallest possible sample, and never jeopardize the continued existence of the original plant." Amen.
The best time to plant and transplant Narcissus is mid to late summer after they have gone dormant. This means that clumps need to be marked and labeled with stakes when they bloom in the spring in order to locate them after the foliage has died. One option is to move them in late spring as the foliage turns yellow and can still be seen. In desperate (or lazy) circumstances, most tough species of Narcissus can be moved in full bloom or full foliage and planted immediately, with a good soaking, fairly successfully. As a rule, the following years bloom will be jeopardized due to the interruption of the natural growth cycle. True naturalizing types of Narcissus begin root growth in late summer and early fall. Shoots often emerge as early as Thanksgiving. Therefore all planting and transplanting should be finished before the first of October or even earlier for best results. Late planting with the rest of the Dutch bulbs is not recommended.
There's nothing more invigorating than the arrival of the early Narcissus growing like wildflowers with reckless disregard for horticultural boundaries. As a matter of fact, naturalizing Narcissus are even more adapted for roadside and highway plantings
than wildflowers are. All they require is full sun to part shade (preferably deciduous) and a fairly well drained soil. They bloom early avoiding mowing of flowers or foliage, they're perfectly happy amidst the grass and weeds. Reseeding is not necessary so there's no need for unnatural signs designating natural areas. They go dormant during the summer and require no water (actually they need to become bone dry to bloom best). They bloom every year. And they live for ever. What more could you ask? It's a natural!
Sources for Naturalizing Narcissus
Old House Gardens
536 Third St.
Ann Arbor, MI 48103
Attractive, informative catalog $1. Outstanding source for a great number of heirloom bulbs, including N. jonquilla, N. x odorus, N. x intermedius, and N. pseudonarcissus. Many are produced in Louisiana and Texas.
William R.P. Welch
P.O. Box 1736
Carmel Valley, California 93924-1736
Free informative price list. Great source of many U.S. grown N. tazetta cultivars including 'Grand Primo', paperwhites, and double Chinese sacred lily. All order should be in by September 1.
McClure and Zimmerman
108 W. Winnebago
P.O. Box 368
Friesland, WI 53935
Free catalog. Offers a wide variety of Dutch grown bulbs including N. jonquilla, N. x odorus, paperwhites, and Chinese sacred lily.
The Daffodil Mart
Extensive catalog $1. Offers a wide variety of Dutch grown bulbs including N. jonquilla, N. x odorus, paperwhites, and Chinese sacred lily.
Best Naturalizing Narcissus for Texas
2. Narcissus x odorus (campernelle jonquil): Adapted throughout the state. Yellow, fragrant blooms in February. The best!
3. Narcissus x intermedius (Texas star jonquil): Adapted throughout the state. Creamy-yellow, fragrant blooms in February.
4. Narcissus pseudonarcissus (early daffodil/Lent lily): Perennial throughout the state. Creamy-yellow blooms in February. Multiplies best in acid, sandy-loam soils.
5. Narcissus tazetta 'Grand Primo' (Grand Primo narcissus): Adapted to all parts of the state from Dallas south. Creamy-white, fragrant blooms in February. Thrives in alkaline or acid soils.
6. Narcissus tazetta papyraceous (paperwhites): Performs best from 1-10 south to the coast. Pure white, fragrant blooms in December-January.
7. Narcissus tazetta orientalis (Chinese sacred lily): Best along the coast only. White-yellow bicolor, fragrant blooms in January-February.