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Missouri Environment & Garden


David Trinklein
University of Missouri
Plant Science & Technology
(573) 882-9631

Daffodils: Harbingers of Spring

David Trinklein
University of Missouri
(573) 882-9631

Published: September 1, 2009

Few things exemplify the annual reawakening of nature each spring as do daffodils. They represent one of the most vigorous, colorful spring flowers and few garden plants provide as much pleasure with minimal effort as do daffodils. With adequate drainage they will thrive in most Missouri soils for years and are relatively pest-free. Early fall is an ideal time to establish daffodils for a glorious show of color next spring. Since daffodils remain a popular item among gardeners their bulbs should be appearing soon on the shelves of nurseries and garden centers everywhere.

There has been considerable confusion over the years concerning the proper name for this popular flower. Should it be called daffodil or narcissus? Actually, both are considered correct. Narcissus is the genus in the Amaryllidaceae family to which daffodil belongs and thus represents its Latin name. The genus was named after a young man in Greek mythology who was quite taken with his own attractiveness.

Daffodil is the English common name given to the plant and is thought to be a corruption of “affodell”. The latter, in turn, was derived fromAsphodellus, a genus of garden plants native to Europe. The term daffodil was carried to other countries by Englishspeaking people as they migrated from their native land. “Daffa down dilly,” an old poetic term used for this plant, was popularized briefly in the 1960’s by the release of a song with this title. Additionally, certain people today (mainly in the southern U.S.) erroneously call daffodil a jonquil. True jonquils, in fact, represent one of the 13 divisions or classes of Narcissus.

Some authorities reserve the term daffodil for the trumpet division of Narcissus. Members of this division have a trumpet-like corona (or cup) that is longer than their outer petals. Other popular divisions of narcissi include the large-cupped narcissi whose cup is more than one-third but less than the full length of the petals; the small-cupped narcissi whose cup is less than one-third the length of the petals; and the double narcissi which are characterized by large flowers with many petals.

Good soil drainage is perhaps the most demanding need of daffodils. Bulbs planted in poorly drained locations weaken quickly, fail to flower after the first year and often develop bulb rots. Incorporation of organic matter into a soil usually helps improve drainage when it is a problem. Daffodils should have sunlight in order to develop the bulb and flower year after year; ideally this would be at least five hours of sunlight every day. However, since much of their growth and photosynthetic activity occurs early, before trees foliate, they may be planted under or near trees. Avoid planting them on north sides of buildings or near tall, dense evergreens. Daffodils do not require heavy fertilization. When preparing the soil for daffodils, incorporate a complete garden fertilizer with a 1:2:2 or 1:3:3 N-P-K ratio (e.g. 5-10-10); fertilizer with high amounts of nitrogen should be avoided. Be sure to mix this fertilizer thoroughly with the soil; never place it directly in the bottom of a hole in which a daffodil bulb will be planted.

Daffodils must have time to develop a good root system before cold temperatures set in for the winter. Therefore, early through mid-October is an ideal time to plant daffodils in Missouri. Later planting can be successful in years with warm, mild falls. Select large, firm, double-nosed bulbs free from any obvious defect or disease. “Double-nosed” is the term given to bulbs containing two growing points that should result in multiple flowers the first year after planting. When planting, space daffodils six to 12 inches apart depending on the cultivar selected and flowering effect desired. Fuller displays of flowers require closer spacing and more frequent division of the bulbs. Daffodils should be planted so the base of the bulb is about six inches below the soil surface. In lighter soils, the depth can be increased to eight inches. Daffodils must have good moisture to flower well. If rainfall if sparse, the bulbs should be watered well after planting and throughout the fall. Application of an organic form of mulch (e.g. pine needles) can help to retain moisture as well as keep soil temperature uniform and warm. The latter is important to allow the bulb to develop an extensive root system before soil temperatures cool.

As mentioned previously, daffodils are relatively carefree and “naturalize” quite easily in Missouri. Established bulbs should be fertilized lightly each spring just as their leaves emerge from the soil. A handful or garden or bulb fertilizer around the base of each clump is sufficient; take care not to get any fertilizer on the leaves themselves. Both during and after flowering, daffodils require adequate water to make new growth. Fortunately, in Missouri they flower at a time of the year when spring rains tend to provide goodly amounts of moisture. In years with dry spring weather, supplemental irrigation is recommended. Daffodil bulbs should remain dry during the summer when the bulb is dormant. Daffodils manufacture food that is stored in the bulb and helps produce flowers the following year. For this reason, foliage should be allowed to remain on the plant for about eight weeks following blooming. Flower heads should be removed promptly following flowering to prevent seed heads from forming.

Properly spaced bulbs will need dividing only every five to 10 years. The need for division becomes obvious when flower size becomes smaller. To divide, dig the clump of bulbs after flowering has occurred and the foliage is dying back but can still be seen. After digging, remove excess soil and allow the bulbs to dry in a well-ventilated location out of direct sunlight. After the bulbs are dry, offsets may be removed from the parent bulb and stored in a dry, cool location with good air movement until October, when they should be replanted.

Daffodils may be forced in containers indoors for those who want a bit of late winter/early spring color. Begin by selecting healthy bulbs of cultivars that are known to force well. ‘Barrett Browning’, ‘Carlton’, ‘Dutch Master’, ‘February Gold’, ‘Mount Hood’ and ‘Tête-a- Tête’ represent a few examples of the latter. Select a clean container and fill the bottom with a soilless growing medium (e.g. peat, vermiculite and perlite) so that the tips of the bulbs will be slightly below the rim of the container when planted. Gently place the bulbs on the growing medium in the container; three to four bulbs for a pot six inches in diameter should suffice. Fill and lightly firm the container with additional growing medium; the medium should cover the tips of the bulbs but end about one-half inch below the rim of the container. Label and water well.

Daffodils bulbs need to be exposed to temperatures in the range of 40 to 45O F for 13 weeks before they will bloom. This can be accomplished by placing them in an old refrigerator no longer used for food storage, an unheated shed or a trench made in the ground and covered with mulch. Pots should be kept uniformly moist but not wet during the chilling period. After the chilling requirement has been met the pots may be moved indoors for forcing. Place pots in a cool room (preferably 63 to 65O F) in as bright a setting as possible and keep adequately watered. The plants should bloom within three to four weeks, depending upon temperature.

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