Plants & Growing

Daffodil Care and Growing Tips In The UK

Yellow Daffodils Stretching Into the Horizon

Daffodils are among the most popular of perennial flowers, radiating, as they do, a merry innocence with their nodding friendliness, and offering – dare we say – “such a jocund company”!

Narcissus, commonly called daffodil in the United Kingdom and Northern U.S.A., is a genus of long-lived perennial spring bulbs. Whether the names narcissus and daffodil are synonymous and interchangeable or whether daffodil identifies only a subset of narcissus plants is a subject of some disagreement.

We conform to the definition and position of The Daffodil Society (Est. 1898) of the U.K.:

“We aim to promote the whole of the genus Narcissus, the botanical name for our favourite flower [the Daffodil]. The words Narcissus and Daffodil relate to the same flower but the Society uses the more common name Daffodil.”

Daffodil flowers typically comprise of a conspicuous corona surrounded by six tepals. Flattened strap-like leaves are attached to the base of the main stem.

Though most daffodils are yellow trumpet-shaped blooms just as they are usually envisaged, this flower is rather more diverse in its shapes, sizes, and colours than commonly known or conceived.

Some varieties have pronounced, protruding trumpets while others have dainty cups. Paperwhite daffodils reach heights of 80 centimetres; compare that to Narcissus asturiensis which typically stands at 10 centimetres – a quarter of the length of Paperwhites’ leaves! And talking of ‘paperwhite,’ daffodils grace gardens as well as meadows in hues of yellow, orange, cream, pink, and in pure white.

Besides that, some cultivars are bi-coloured, such as white and yellow, white and orange, and yellow and orange. Adding further diversity to the flower, even their orientation varies by species and cultivar. The flowers of different daffodil species and cultivars are variously pendent, horizontal, or erect.

Background

The Narcissus flower is purportedly named after the anti-hero Narcissus from Greek mythology. Narcissus was a handsome but self-centred youth who was much loved by, among others, the pretty nymph Echo. She had been hexed so that she could not speak or say anything; all she could do was to repeat the last phrase or two that had been spoken to her.

Narcissus spurned Echo, preferring his own company to that of the fair nymph. Echo took herself and her unrequited love to a rocky wilderness where she died from heartbreak, leaving us with her disembodied voice and namesake – the echo. Narcissus then got what was coming to him: his heartless rejection of true love angered the gods and Nemesis cursed him.

The outcome was that Narcissus finally did find love. He bent over a clear pool for a drink of water and fell in love . . . with his own image! Pining for his unattainable reflection, Narcissus withered away and died, and was transformed into a flower – his eponym. What a coincidence it is that narcissus flowers are often found bordering bodies of water, sometimes peering over the edge – at themselves!

Origins

The botanical origins of Narcissi lie in the Iberian Peninsula some 25 to 20 million years ago. As the plants have evolved and spread geographically over the centuries, so too have some species gone extinct. Although Narcissus plants were much-liked and cultivated even in Ancient Times, their popularity took off in the 16th Century when they began to be cultivated. Species of the plant are listed in a German catalogue dating from 1588, Hortus Medicus. John Gerard’s Herball, or Generall Historie of Plantes, circa 1597, contains illustrations of daffodils. Also in the 16th Century running into the 17th, the Netherlands in particular became a centre of trade for narcissus bulbs.

In the 1700s botanists and writers were evincing a particular interest in the plant, studying it, sketching it, and praising it. Then along came William Wordsworth and catapulted this thitherto humble wildflower into stratospheric fame in the early 1800s. Since then, varieties and cultivars of this wildflower have multiplied even more rapidly. The U.K. is the world’s leading producer of daffodil bulbs and is also a top-three exporter. Daffodils are a multi-million-pound industry in the U.K.

Two Poet’s Daffodil flowers
Poet’s Daffodil a.k.a. Pheasant’s Eye

Varieties and Types Of Daffodils

Daffodils are classified using different systems, such as genetic, cytological and morphological, with some confusion and disagreement as to genera and species. Depending on the definition of species and the classification system, the number of species ranges from as few as about 40 to as many as 100-plus. As for hybrids and cultivars, many thousands have been registered. The Royal Horticultural Society arranges cultivars into 13 divisions with about half of them defined by their respective coronas with Division 1 being Trumpet Daffodils.

Daffodils inter-breed and hybridise relatively freely; moreover, horticulturists come up with numerous new cultivars every year. It is hardly possible to cover them all so we go beyond the standard-bearer, Dutchmaster or King Alfred, and list some favourites. Our choices in the following Top Ten list are not as widespread or as well-known as the Dutchmasters of Daffodildom yet they are super-attractive, each one in its own way. Our favourites are selected without regard to range or diversity and solely on the basis of artistic appeal. In no particular order these are:

  • Scilly Valentine: The solid yellow-gold tepals and solid orange cup of this horizontally-oriented variety stare you in the face and projects an atypically bold and brassy air.
  • Tahiti Daffodil: This very symmetrical double flower has wafer-ish tepals but the bewitching feature is that both the tepals and cup are a buttery hue with central flecks and splashes of orange.
  • New Baby Daffodil: Just like the name says, this one’s an innocent-looking ‘baby;’ a miniature variety with a bright yellow cup while the tepals are white with yellow bordering.
  • Poet’s Daffodil a.k.a. Pheasant’s Eye: This arresting variety has snowy white tepals set off by a multi-hued corona that is greenish-yellow showing distinct ‘eyes’ and with red fringeing.
  • Sorbet Daffodil: Framed by rounded, creamy white tepals, this lovely variety has a whorl-like split corona with each one having a unique set of yellow, orange, and vermilion ‘brush strokes.’
  • Daffodil ‘Hillstar’: This work of art looks like it is hand-painted, for the well-shaped cup is yellow turning into white but the tepals are white at the centre turning yellow at their halfway point.
  • Narcissus Beautiful Eyes: ‘Beautiful’ is the key word for this bloom which usually has off-white ivory tepals and a small cup coloured deep orange and a pronounced eye.
  • Le Torch Daffodil: This stunning double flower is rose-like in its complexity and has both tepals and corona of an intense yellow hue splotched with equally deep orange.
  • Daffodil ‘Reggae’: Belying its name, this is a gentle and sedate variety with flared white tepals surrounding a pronounced corona with a pastel, nearly faded, salmon-pink shade.
  • Daffodil ‘Mission Bells’: Pure white with a touch of yellow at the centre, and so superbly formed with all its elements in perfect proportion and balance that it is as if sculpted to adorn Paradise.

We feel that if you grace your garden with our choices, you could well pull a switch on that old line referencing roses and tell your girl, “I would like my narcissi to see you.” But be mindful that your sweetheart does not fall so hard for a narcissus that she suffers poor Echo’s fate!

Feeding, Care and Growing Tips

In view of the vast variety of daffodils and the geographical regions and terrains that they inhabit, a one-size-fits-all approach to feeding and care is not possible. That stated, as a general rule daffodils are perfectly content in any old soil but they thrive especially well in rich, loamy soils. Good drainage is necessary for this bulbous plant. Daffodils’ optimal soil pH range is 6.5 to 7.0 but they are not fussy and make do in more acidic or alkaline soils. They do very well without fertilizer but if your soil is poor or the plants are not healthy, sprinkle some bone meal, special bulb fertilizer, or a feed like Growmore when the plants are flowering.

Daffodils have a preference for sun but also do quite well in partial shade.

Daffodils should be watered regularly in spring and autumn. They take the summer ‘off,’ going dormant and should not be watered during this season.

Tahiti Daffodil flower
The Tahiti Daffodil

When To Plant Daffodils

Daffodil are among the easiest flowers to plant and grow. Bulbs are usually planted from September and October, latest by November. Planted thus in autumn, they put out roots through the winter with their flowers being the voiceless heralds of spring.

The bulbs should be planted with the nose up, 8 to 15 centimetres deep depending on the size of the bulb and kept well-watered.

When Do Daffodils Bloom?

Daffodils begin to bloom as early as February. Most species and cultivars bloom in March and April, with some putting out flowers in early May. May is the month that Montreaux, renowned for its jazz festivals, holds its annual Narcissi Festival.

Over and above daffodils’ natural blooming cycle, as daffodil flowers are in demand in December, bulbs are manipulated by keeping them at different temperatures for varying periods of time before they are planted in a greenhouse in November for the plant to bloom in mid-December. This is called ‘forcing.’

Pruning Daffodils

For seeds to develop, nutrients and resources are channelled towards seeds rather than the bulb. And while daffodils can and do grow from seeds, such plants take four or five years to put forth flowers. Therefore, it does not make much sense to let seeds develop, especially when bulbs are easy to buy and to propagate by division. As such, it is best to deadhead spent blooms.

After the flowering season is over in May, the leaves develop reserves of energy for the bulbs. Let them be until they are wilted and dead, which will usually happen about eight weeks after flowering season, and then cut them back.

Where To Buy Daffodils

Daffodil species and cultivars are widely available in nurseries and garden centres. They are sold as flowering plants in containers and also as bulbs. You can rely on popular species and cultivars being available; however, in view of the breadth of floral types and kinds, it may be a good idea to browse and find a variety, be it little known, that is to your personal taste.

Daffodils are also available through online sellers in a bewildering array of varieties. You can buy potted plants as well as bulbs, usually in packs of six, ten, or twelve.

Daffodil bulbs are big business in the United Kingdom and the Netherlands where specialist growers sell bulbs in bulk ranging from 100 bulbs through to 5,000.

Common Diseases and Problems

Daffodils are typically healthy pest- and disease-resistant plants. However, if and when the are afflicted by something, the causes can be many and widespread. Pests include the narcissus bulb fly, their larvae, nematodes, slugs and snails. They can also be infected by viruses and fungi. Finally, they can be affected by basal rot or other types of rot.

The narcissus bulb fly, easily mistaken for a smallish bumble bee, itself does no harm. The problem is that it lays eggs in the soil from which larvae emerge and burrow into the bulb. They feed upon the bulb from within and destroy it. You can make your soil larva-resistant by packing it tightly, mulching it, and using insect nets. You can kill the flies by using pyrethin-based sprays. Remove and discard infested bulbs to prevent the infestation from spreading.

If your bulbs are infested with nematodes, for severe infestations you will be best off disposing of the infested bulbs and also quarantining the patch of soil where the infestation occurred. Soak the bulbs when they are dormant in water at a stable 24° centigrade for two hours, and then soak them again in water at a stable 44° centigrade for four hours. However, do not soak bulbs that have basal rot in the same tank as bulbs that do not.

Viruses are not quite as pernicious as larvae or nematodes because they do not kill the plant but reduce its vigour and cause discoloured and distorted leaves. As there is no known cure, a ‘Prevention is Better than Cure’ approach is best. Plants with symptoms of virus infection should be removed to prevent the virus from spreading to healthy plants.

If a bulb is infected with a fungus, wash the bulb and soak it in a very diluted solution of thiophanate methyl, a fungicide, at 28° centigrade for 25 to 30 minutes, and then hang the bulb in a mesh bag for it to dry.

If your bulb has basal rot, you will have to throw it away.

One of the best ways to practice the prevention principle is to buy bulbs from reputable and established growers and sellers, to plant only the biggest bulbs, to plant bulbs that have no wounds, mould, or discolouration, and to ensure that your soil is not waterlogged and is well-drained.

Scilly Valentine Daffodils
Scilly Valentine Daffodils
Image Credit: Mike Scilly, Licence

Habitat and Growing Conditions

Daffodil species span U.S.D.A. hardiness zones 3B through 10 with some species having their floor at 4 and other species maxing out at 9. The range of acceptable soil pH is 6.0 to 7.5.

Daffodil is a Pan-Eurasian genus. Although the landmasses surrounding the Mediterranean Sea are prime daffodil country where the greatest diversity is found, the flower occurs naturally in most of Europe, in Northern Africa, and eastwards through to Iran. Its habitats are many and varied as daffodils grow on rocky escarpments as well as marshland, in Switzerland’s mountainous pastures and in French grasslands and woods.

Daffodils famously grow close to bodies of water, such as bays and lakes— heck. come to think of it, it wouldn’t be trite or hackneyed to quote William Wordsworth, and so on the subject of daffodil habitat:

When all at once I saw a crowd, / A host, of golden daffodils; / Beside the lake, beneath the trees, / Fluttering and dancing in the breeze. / . . . They stretched in never-ending line / Along the margin of a bay: / . . . / The waves beside them danced; but they / Outdid the sparkling waves in glee: / A poet could not but be gay, / In such a jocund company. . . .

Frequently Asked Questions

Are daffodils native to Britain?

Yes, daffodils are native to Britain. However, they did not originate in Britain nor is the landmass a centre of diversity. They were introduced into Britain in Ancient Times and have been cultivated since no later than the 1500s. The daffodil varieties seen in gardens are usually not Britain’s native species; native species can be seen growing wild in fields, meadows, and along watercourses.

Are daffodils poisonous to cats & dogs?

Yes. Daffodils are poisonous not only to cats and dogs but also to other animals as well as to humans. All parts of the plant are poisonous but especially the bulb. The poisonous compound is lycorine, a crystalline alkaloid. The initial symptoms of poisoning are abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhoea. These symptoms may be followed by trembling and convulsions. Death may eventuate.

How should I store daffodil bulbs?

If you are planning to store bulbs dug up from the soil, first trim the roots by snipping off their unattached, free-running parts. Then sun dry the bulbs for about 12 hours and store them in a dry room for a further 12 hours as it is important that they be free of dampness.

Regardless of whether the bulbs have been dug up or are freshly-bought, store them in a cool, dry, and dark room. The optimal temperature is between 16° and 18° centigrade with a margin of, say, three degrees. Keep them in a mesh bag so that the bulbs are exposed to air. If you live in a warm climate and do not have a climate-controlled room, store the bulbs in the fridge’s crisper but do not keep any fruit, especially apples, in the same fridge.

Will blind daffodils flower again?

The answer is it depends on what has caused the bulb to go ‘blind.’ If the cause is narcissus bulb fly, basal rot, or some type of virus, like as not the bulb will not flower again. But if the cause is depth of bulb in the soil, dry or poor soil, defoliation, or seed development, then your blind bulbs may well flower again. You can adjust the depth of the bulb; it should be 8 to 15 centimetres below the surface. If the bulb has not been watered regularly, take corrective measures. Also feed it with a 5-10-5 fertilizer or a commercial feed like Growmore. Do not cut back the leaves after flowering season; wait until the leaves themselves are dead. After blooms die, do not let seed-pods develop; deadhead promptly.

Should you deadhead daffodils?

As a general rule, yes. Although daffodils inter-breed and the hybrids could result in unusual and attractive varieties, two considerations are paramount. It takes four or five years for daffodil seeds to develop into bulbs that produce flowers whereas you can buy bulbs that are ready to flower. Second, seed development channels nutrients to the seed-pod, leaving the bulb itself with fewer resources and energy for the following season. As a result, your bulb may bear very few or no flowers.

Do daffodil bulbs multiply in the ground?

Yes, they produce offsets or ‘daughter’ bulbs, and over time clumps of bulbs are formed. This is known as cloning. The daughter bulbs are smaller and are positioned right beside the parent bulb which initially nourishes the ‘daughter.’ As the bulbs multiply, after some years too many bulbs end up occupying a relatively small area of soil. When this happens the bulbs need to be dug up and separated.

A Stand of White Daffodils in a Park in Germany
A Stand of White Daffodils in a Park in Germany
Image Credit: Dietmar Rabich, Licence

About the author

Kersasp 'Kersie' Shekhdar

Kersie learnt the basics of gardening as a toddler, courtesy of his grandfather. In his youth he was an active gardener with a preference for flowering plants. He is a professional and vocational writer and his freelance projects have spanned various kinds of writing.

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