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Missouri Environment & Garden


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

Narcissus: First a complex then a flower

David Trinklein
University of Missouri
(573) 882-9631

Published: October 19, 2020

yellow flowers with orange inside

"He who has two cakes of bread, let him dispose of one of them for some flowers of the narcissus; for bread is the food of the body, and narcissus is the food of the soul."– Galen (129-210 AD)

According to Greek mythology, Narcissus, son of river god Cephissus and the water nymph Liriope, was a strikingly handsome young man who happened to see his reflection in a pool of water one day. So enamored was he with his own beauty, Narcissus could not tear himself away from looking at his image in the water. In love with his likeness and unwilling to leave, he eventually wasted away in melancholy, longing for a love that would never be requited. According to legend, a flower is said to have appeared where Narcissus eventually died. Throughout the ages, narcissism has been the term applied to those with an inflated admiration of their perceived self-image or attributes.

Today, we associate the name Narcissus with a genus of flowering plants having a somewhat confusing identity. Should the flower be referred to as a narcissus or a daffodil? Actually, both are correct. Narcissus is a genus in the Amaryllidaceae plant family to which daffodil belongs, and thus represents part of its Latin (scientific) name. 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 from Asphodellus, a genus of garden plants native to Europe.

white flowers with orange inside

As a genus, Narcissus contains over 50 different species. Many of the species are native to southern Europe and North Africa, with another center of origin existing in the western Mediterranean, area. Narcissus has long been used medicinally. The Greek physician and father of modern medicine Hippocrates (460-370 BC) used it as a treatment for uterine tumors. Later, Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) recommended topical use of oil derived from narcissus for the treatment of a number of conditions. Even today, the medicinal value of narcissus is of interest to scientists. Research is being conducted to determine the efficacy of a narcissus-derived compound called lycorine to treat various diseases, including cancer.

Narcissus also has a long history as an ornamental plant. Greek botanist and philosopher Theophrastus (371-287 BC) listed and described many kinds of narcissus in 'Historia Plantarum' (Enquiry into Plants), a five-volume work published circa 300 BC. The Roman army is credited with spreading narcissus during its conquest of Europe, where it naturalized readily and became popular as an ornamental by the 16th century. By the late 19th century narcissus was an important commercial crop of the Netherlands, evidenced by it still being referred to as one of the "Dutch bulbs."

yellow flowers with orange inside

Today, there are over 32,000 registered cultivars of narcissus. For simplicity's sake, horticulturists have separated them into 13 different types or groups, based on flower morphology. The trumpet daffodils are the most popular of the 13 types and (arguably) the most attractive. Members of this group bear flowers with a trumpet-like corona (or cup) that is longer than their outer petals. Other popular groups of narcissus include the large-cupped narcissus whose cup is more than one-third but less than the full length of the petals; the small-cupped narcissus whose cup is less than one-third the length of the petals; and the double narcissus which is characterized by large flowers with many petals.

Early fall is an ideal time to establish narcissus for a glorious show of color next spring. Additionally, bulbs are readily available in retail outlets at this time of year. Select a location with well-drained soil. 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.

Narcissus leaves need sunlight in order to manufacture food to develop the bulb and flower year after year. Ideally, this would be exposure to at least five hours of sun every day. However, since much of its growth and photosynthetic activity occurs early, before trees foliate, narcissus may be planted under or near deciduous trees. Avoid planting it on north sides of buildings or near tall, dense evergreens.

Narcissus does not require heavy fertilization. When preparing the soil for narcissus, incorporate a complete garden fertilizer with a 1:2:2 or 1:3:3 N-P-K ratio (e.g. 5-10-10). In contrast, fertilizers with high amounts of nitrogen should be avoided. Be sure to mix the fertilizer thoroughly into the soil, and never place it directly in the bottom of a hole in which a narcissus bulb will be planted.

Narcissus bulbs must have time to develop a good root system before cold temperatures set in for the winter. As mentioned above, early through mid-October is an ideal time to plant narcissus in Missouri. Later planting can be successful in years with warm, mild falls.

Select large, firm, "double-nose" bulbs free from any obvious defect or disease. Double-nose is the term given to bulbs containing two growing points that should result in multiple flowers the first year after planting. When planting, space bulbs six to 12 inches apart depending on the cultivar selected and flower display desired. Fuller displays of flowers require closer spacing and more frequent division of the bulbs. Narcissus 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.

Narcissus bulbs need adequate moisture to establish themselves. If rainfall is 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 temperatures uniform and warm. The latter is important to allow bulbs to develop an extensive root system before soil temperatures cool.

Narcissus are relatively carefree and "naturalize" quite readily in Missouri. Established bulbs should be fertilized lightly each spring, just as their leaves emerge from the soil. A handful of garden or bulb fertilizer sprinkled around the base of each clump is sufficient. Take care not to get any fertilizer on the leaves themselves. Both during and after flowering, narcissus requires 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.

yellow flowers aroung a tree with barn in background

As mentioned above, narcissus leaves 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 after 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.

Narcissus 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. Using a soilless growing medium (e.g. peat, vermiculite and perlite) plant bulbs in clean pots so that the tips of the bulbs are slightly below the rim of the container. For a six-inch container, three to four bulbs should suffice. Label the container and water the growing medium well.

Narcissus bulbs need to be exposed to temperatures in the range of 40 to 45 degrees F for 13 weeks to induce flower formation. This can be accomplished by placing planted pots 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 65 degrees F) in as bright a setting as possible and keep adequately watered. The plants should bloom within three to four weeks, depending upon temperature.

Finally, it is important to note that, as previously mentioned, narcissus contains lycorine. The latter is a toxic alkaloid compound concentrated mostly in the bulb, but also is found in its leaves. Bulbs also contain microscopic, needle-like calcium oxalates crystals that can cause skin irritation. Therefore, all parts of narcissus are to be considered poisonous and should be kept away from children and pets.

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REVISED: October 19, 2020