Daffodils: A Persistent Plant for Troubling Times

Is there a more cheerful plant than a daffodil? This sunny flower is one of the earliest signs of life after winter, popping up in planters and borders as well as less likely places.

Spotting clumps of these flowers in the woods and abandoned estates has become one of my favorite pastimes whenever I need a break from the news.

How did these flowers get here? Are they all that’s left of a long-forgotten garden?

In Daffodil: The Remarkable Story of the World’s Most Popular Spring Flower, Noel Kingsbury, a British garden designer and horticultural consultant, explains:

These plants are clearly great survivors, thriving even in places where they have obviously been accidentally dropped or discarded–the flowers frequently mark where someone emptied the back of their car of garden waste into a ditch or hedge, little thinking that the event and scene of their crime would be annually and flamboyantly marked for so many years to come.

Kingsbury’s book provides information on the types, anatomy, growing conditions, history, and future potential of daffodils (also known as narcissus, among other names). They are low maintenance, resilient plants:

A great many daffodils are planted thus: 1) dig a hole, 2) throw in bulbs, 3) replace soil. They go on to thrive, as did many of those flung into hedges during wartime, when flower producers [in the UK] had to go over to food production. Daffodils are survivors, and their popularity is undoubtedly linked to their being so easy, vigorous, and indestructible. A little care, however, reaps greater rewards… (Kingsbury, Chapter 7)

There are over 27,000 varieties, and dedicated breeders are striving to add to this number. 

“It is a burning question,” Kingsbury writes. “Why do people continue to breed plants after an acceptable garden plant has been produced?”

There are many possible answers. Harold Koopowitz, an American plant scientist profiled in the book, breeds daffodils because it’s “fun and creative.” 

Doesn’t that sound great? I considered adding “extremely amateur daffodil breeding” to my list of activities to do while social distancing during a pandemic. Wouldn’t it be nice to produce a red daffodil? Or one that blooms throughout the summer? It would be a hands-on botany experiment for my homebound kids, who’d be interested in how daffodils reproduce:

Wild species spread themselves and their genes through seeds, and to a very limited extent by their bulbs dividing. The former…involves a mixing of genes between parents, so that there is always at least some variation in the offspring. The latter is a vegetative, clonal process, so the daughter bulbs will be genetically identical to the parent. (Kingsbury, Chapter 1)

But then I came to my senses.

“[I]t’s like playing roulette,” Koopowiz explains, “but it takes five to six years for the wheel to stop spinning.” 

Daffodil breeding involves transferring pollen from one variety to the stigma of another variety, collecting the resulting seed, sowing it, and then waiting for it to grow and flower. According to Kingsbury, “It takes at least four years to get a daffodil to flower from seed[.]”

I don’t have that kind of patience. Also, I don’t know if any of my daffodils produce seeds. Many hybrids are sterile.

I’ll stick to enjoying the daffodils in my neighborhood and my garden, which includes two very popular varieties from well-known breeders, Carlton (bred by P.D. Williams, pre-1927) and Tête-à-tête (Alec Gray, 1949). This fall, I’ll plant more bulbs, and maybe a few of those will be varieties capable of producing seeds in the future.

Some of the daffodils in my garden right now
Carlton daffodils in my front yard

Featured book: Daffodil: The Remarkable Story of the World’s Most Popular Spring Flower by Noel Kingsbury with photography by Jo Whitworth. Check it out to learn more about daffodils.

Images in this post: I took the first two pictures on March 22, 2020 during my walk around my neighborhood (I stayed at least six feet away from all neighbors). I took the other pictures in his post on March 21st in my yard. Other varieties of daffodils will bloom in April and May; however, I wonder if they will bloom earlier this year. The season started at least three weeks early.

18 comments

  1. Well I never. And I thought that there was just one type of daffodil. 27,000! Yes they are plentiful in our countryside and they certainly lift the spirits when walking/running in the lanes in the early part of the year.

  2. What a lovely, peaceful-sounding book. I’ve been reading memoirs that focus on animals, which helps me stay in the book. My only issue with daffodils, if I’m thinking of the right flower, is they don’t stick around very long! For that reason, they tend to make me sad. As for cross-pollination….does anyone else picture making the flowers kiss, or is that just me? 🙂

    1. I hadn’t pictured the flowers kissing, trumpet to trumpet, but now I will! Ha! Each variety of daffodil might not stick around for long (my Carltons are almost two weeks strong at this point), but you can plant enough varieties to have daffodils for several months. My Tête-à-tête bloom in March, and my Pheasant’s eye bloom in May.

      1. Oh, lovely! I’m thinking the ones I see that don’t stick around long are white with a light yellow inside part. As you can tell, I know SO much about flowers, lol.

        Reading your post and remembering how lovely and calm the writing is in A Case of First Impression, I’m planning to read Anusha this month as a nice sort of soothing book. I can’t wait to read your version of the Anne story 🙂

        1. Thanks for giving Anusha a try! I’ll never be able to imitate Montgomery’s flowery writing in Anne of Green Gables, but there are a few references to daffodils in my modern version of her story. I loved writing that story with my kids. I drafted the chapters, using ideas we brainstormed together, and then we read it out loud and made changes as we went along. It was so much fun. I’d love to do a story with Zayla too–and I have an idea for one–but I’m in the middle of too many projects right now (some creative, but mostly work). My goal is to start it this summer, but who knows. Considering how much time we’re spending at home right now, I might start it sooner.

          1. I was telling my husband this morning about how you wrote Anusha with your girls and how you penned a blog post about how one section of the book made them cry. The conundrum was to keep the sad part because it got an emotional response or get rid of it because it made your girls sad (if I remember your post correctly). He said of course you should keep it because books are a place where kids can practice feelings in a safe space. Of course I replied that if his adorable nieces were sitting in front of him crying, he might not feel the same way. He said he would, but that he would likely cry with them.

  3. Those are beautiful! Before I saw a field of daffodils all at once, I suspected Wordsworth of overselling them, but gosh, they are genuinely beautiful and cheerful flowers. They make me feel nice. If I weren’t such a disastrous gardener, I would wish to plant some in my front garden. (Also if I had some seeds. Where would I get seeds? This is a dumb, hard time.)

    1. You probably wouldn’t be surprised that there’s a reference to Wordsworth’s daffodils “dancing in the breeze” in this book. He wasn’t overselling them, at least not in my opinion. They are so uplifting, especially right now. As for planting them, the trick is getting ahold of bulbs. I got mine from an online store (probably Brecks, but I can’t remember now). I hope you’re well!

  4. I enjoyed this post! I love daffodils and they are so hardy… much hardier than the countless types of tulips I’ve planted over the years that only seems to last one season and then POOF they’re gone.

    1. Yeah, Kingsbury calls daffodils “true perennials,” explaining that “some of the plants sold as perennials have, in truth, a limited lifespan,” and he uses tulips as an example. I have a dream of growing bright red tulips, but I can’t. The deer eat them right up!

    1. Thanks! The daffodils are still going strong, and more varieties open each day. It gives me something to smile about, and I really need that right now. We’re hanging in there. I hope you and your family are well!

  5. I love daffodils! I don’t have access to a garden at the moment, but I am getting up (very early, away from other people) and going for a walk for exercise, and I have really enjoyed spotting them. There have also been beautiful, unexpected patches of primroses near me!

    I have a box of spring bulbs – tulips and daffodils – that never got sown this year because I was in the midst of moving, so I am going to sow them anyway and see what thrives, out of season, on my balcony. It seems like a good indoor activity.

    1. I would love to come across patches of primroses, but that would be very unusual in my neck of the woods. Good luck with the bulbs. Yesterday, we found old packets of tomato and pepper seeds in our house, and I’m excited to see if any of it germinates. I wasn’t able to buy new seeds for our veggie patch this year because all the seeds were sold out (panic buying).

  6. Thank you for this. Long story but my husband died last year and I’ve been struggling with my reading. I used to read at least a book a week, all fiction, with >1000 books on my “to read” list. I can’t read any of them. Too romantic, too scary, too sad, too happy, someone dies, someone is sick, someone is a caretaker, someone grieves, the couple lives happily ever after. All of that is out.

    But non-fiction seems to work. I’ve learned how dictionaries are written, how Friends was cast, how the play Come From Away was developed, the working life of a honeybee, and lots and lots of ways to handle grief. Daffodils seems perfect. Thank you.

    1. I am so sorry for your loss. There is something comforting about non-fiction. It’s often less emotional, depending on the subject matter, and it’s concrete and potentially useful. It feels productive. I love learning about new subjects. I recommend this book on daffodils. It’s probably more information than an average gardener wants to know, but I thought it was interesting, and it’s inspired me to plant more varieties of this impressive plant. Thank you for your comment!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s