Narcissus-ism

April 16 1998 3:30 AM

Narcissus-ism

In praise of the perfect daffodil.

Illustration by Juliette Borda

You can't avoid daffodils in April, and you wouldn't want to. With their long ruffled trumpets and bright petals splayed like the rays of the sun, these unabashed bloomers give of themselves freely and ask little in return. Even the hardest among us feel like better people for taking pleasure in their charms.

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My current favorite is shyer than most. It's called Narcissus Hawera, and it bloomed for the first time in New Zealand in 1937. It's small, rarely exceeding 8 inches. It's a translucent, pale yellow, with a head that dips slightly, beckoning you to lift it with a finger to get a better look. It has a short, straight snub nose with the tiniest unevenness along the rim. Its perianth is reflexed, meaning that the petals sweep back from the cup and twist a little, so that the flower looks as if it's being blown by a gentle wind. A curve at the top of the stem causes the Hawera to flutter, giving it a disarming nervousness.

Despite seeming so vulnerable, Hawera is sturdy and not at all fussy. It's an excellent performer, often yielding several bell-like flowers on a single stem and blooming for weeks. Content almost anywhere, it multiplies freely. It has a sweet, delicate fragrance, unlike the heady odor some narcissuses give off.

I first saw Hawera last spring in a garden outside Chicago, where it had been planted along the foundation of a stone house in long drifts interspersed with sweeps of fern. The 19th century British gardener Gertrude Jekyll was the first to suggest pairing ferns with daffodils, pointing out that just as the daffodil foliage begins to brown and die back, the fern hits its stride and covers the mess. This particular fern was fine and lacy and looked fetching next to Hawera. I scratched its name into my notebook and actually remembered to order some in the fall. Last week, in San Francisco, I saw it coming up in a pleasing manner from between the stones of a garden path.

Illustration by Juliette Borda

I set aside some of my own bulbs last fall, potting them to bring indoors to bloom in winter. Although slow to appear, taking nearly two months to flower after being brought inside, Hawera was glorious when it finally arrived. It ruined for me two varieties of daffodils I already had flowering. One, Narcissus Topolino, I had tried because it was said to be an easy forcer, and it was--eagerly blooming in a vulgar fashion with a trumpet too long for its small face. The other, Narcissus Diskcissal, was said to be fragrant, and it was--too fragrant. Plus, it was a splotchy yellow with white leaching through it. Once the elegant Hawera ventured forth, the others were exiled to the compost pile.

Hawera is a late bloomer in the garden as well, and while other varieties of narcissus have been opening daily in my New York garden, there is still no sign of Hawera. Daffodils are categorized as early-, middle-, or late-blooming, and if you choose a few from each, you can hope for six weeks of flowers, and you may actually get them. When it gets cold in spring, as it invariably does, people worry for their daffodils. But daffodils are cold-weather creatures, and for the most part, the chillier it is, the longer they'll stick around. The thing to worry about now is what bulbs to order for next spring. (Click here for a quick review of daffodils.)

Gardeners who really have it together place their orders early, sometime between June and August, while the rest of us scramble in the fall. By then, who can even remember what the garden looked like in spring? This year, I'm determined to make my selection while I'm still looking at spring's display, deciding what I need, and how many, and where it will all go. (Click here for some planting tips.)

Unfortunately, the fall catalogs don't arrive until mid-May at the earliest. The thing to do is to take notes now on what you want and snap pictures of your garden to remind yourself where to plant in the fall. If you don't trust yourself even to do this, you can order now, using last fall's catalog. Most nurseries will send you their latest one if you don't have it. Regardless of when you place your order, the nursery will ship the bulbs at the proper time for planting in your area, so if you do it now, you can forget about it until later.

Illustration by Juliette Borda

Many of the best catalogs--Daffodil Mart and Van Engelen--don't have pictures but compensate with useful line drawings and excellent descriptions. Either find yourself a reference book such as Taylor's Guide to Bulbs, or use one of the catalogs with color photos for reference, so you can take advantage of the picture-less catalogs' high quality, good selection, and cheaper prices. (The nicer the pictures, the higher the prices.) The John Scheepers catalog manages to have good photos and good prices because it is the retail division of Van Engelen. Get both catalogs, because they work well together, and you can order from either or both depending on the quantities you plan to purchase. (Van Engelen can offer lower prices because it deals in larger quantities.) This year Daffodil Mart will be offering similar discounts for really large orders--say, 800 of something--and 800 daffodils in a woodland setting or scattered about a lawn aren't really that many. You can also get a group of friends to order together. Both of these companies will have lower prices on many items this year because the dollar is strong against the guilder, and most bulbs are grown in Holland.

It would be hard for a beginning gardener to go wrong with daffodils. They are foolproof, long-lived, inexpensive, and repellent to animal pests. They have no downside and are a quiet force for good in the world.

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