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June 2020
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Daffodil, Narcissus, Jonquil, March Flower - What’s in a name?

daffodils color

By Dee Boggus

Pickens County Master Gardener


Daffodils are some of the easiest and most dependable flowers to cultivate in your garden and are readily available for purchase in our area. Because they are also environmentally adaptable, daffodils are ideal plants for the beginning gardener in our locale. The flower that we call daffodil is actually a perennial herbaceous bulb of the genus Narcissus. The two names are interchangeable. Narcissus is the Latin or botanical name for all daffodils and daffodil is the common name for all members of the genus Narcissus.

In some parts of the country any yellow daffodil is called a jonquil. According to the American Daffodil Society (ADS), as a rule, jonquils are characterized by several yellow flower clusters, strong scent, and rounded foliage (but there are exceptions to this characterization).  March flower is another common name for narcissus that is frequently used in our area, but daffodil is usually the preferred nomenclature.

Commercially, daffodils are some of the most important spring flowering bulbs in the world. Their flowers symbolize friendship and are considered a harbinger of spring in the garden. There are between 40 and 200 different daffodil species and over 32,000 registered cultivars and hybrids. (Different botanists frequently classify these flowering bulbs using diverse characteristics, creating a plethora of inconsistent data.) The ADS organizes daffodils into thirteen descriptive divisions. Visit their website for more information regarding these categories.  

Since antiquity, most daffodil species have been native to meadows and woods in southern Europe, North Africa, and the Mediterranean region. Narcissi have been cultivated from at least as early as the sixteenth century in the Netherlands.  During the days of the American expansion west, Daffodils were well established as a “must have” in the garden. By the beginning of the twentieth century huge numbers of Narcissus Tazetta "Paperwhite" were being exported annually from the Netherlands to the United States. Both wild and cultivated daffodil plants have naturalized widely in the US, often outlasting the old home sites where they were originally established.

Daffodils typically grow in large clusters, covering lawns and even entire hillsides with yellow, yellow-and-white, yellow-and-orange, white-and-orange, pink, and lime-green combinations. Daffodil flowers have a trumpet-shaped structure set against a star-shaped background. The name "daffodil" was probably derived from "affodell", a variant of the asphodel plant, as in the past the narcissus was referred to as the asphodel. Under good growing conditions, daffodils should outlast any of us. 

While some kinds of perennial bulbs tend to dwindle over time, daffodils should increase. Although horticultural requirements vary, overall there is a preference for acidic soils in a sunny site and they are generally tolerant of soil conditions. (Most varieties do quite well in my garden although heavy, wet soils are not optimal for the plant.) Daffodil flowers are insect pollinated, the majority by bees, butterflies, flies, and hawkmoths. You can also propagate the plants by division. Dividing the daffodil cluster is not necessary but you can if you wish to spread them out. As a rule, every three to five years is sufficient to keep the patch healthy (and you get the bonus of more plants by doing so).

Daffodils can bloom from three weeks to months, depending on where you live and the cultivars you grow.  After blooming, let the daffodil plant rebuild its bulb food storage for the next year. The leaves stay green while this is happening. When the leaves begin to yellow, they can be detached.  Daffodil leaves removed too soon after flowering will severely deplete your bulbs. Daffodils also continue to absorb nutrients through their foliage for about six weeks after the blooms have died.

All daffodil species (but not all cultivars) contain the alkaloid poison lycorine, mainly in the bulb but also in the leaves. This poison makes the daffodil chiefly unpalatable to animals, specifically Narcissus pseudonarcissus (although deer will attempt to consume them if no other forage is available).  Consequently, narcissus alkaloids have been used as repellents and may also discourage fungi, molds and bacteria. Be aware that the milky sap from the cut end of the flower stem can sometimes cause an adverse reaction to human skin.

When planting daffodils, the bulbs must be set to a depth three times the height of the bulb. This means large bulbs should have a depth of 6 to 8 inches, a medium size 3-6 inches, and a smaller size 2-3 inches. Always remember that the load of soil proves helpful in protecting the bulbs from breaking ground in winter too easily and in keeping them upright for a longer duration. If sufficient planting depth is not given, the daffodil will bend down very soon and though plant clumps may be large, flowers will be scant. Whatever name you use to call them by, in any garden daffodils are a winner.