down to earth – April is for narcissists

Printed in the home & garden extra of the April 13-15 East Bay/South Coast Life section of some local rags…

If it weren’t for daffodils we might never register that winter’s well and truly over before summer hits. They are nature’s way of sending a message that’s about as subtle as a smiley face or caution tape. “Pay attention!” shout the daffodils. “It’s Spring!”

Never mind that they are out with the forsythia and too much yellow can lead to madness. In this case yellow is the color of happiness and crayon sunshine and there’s nothing in this world like standing in the midst of thousands of daffodils in bloom. William Wordsworth said it best. “A poet could not but be gay, in such jocund company.” Besides, gardeners know that not all daffodils are ‘King Alfred’ and true enthusiasts (the American Daffodil Society) proclaim that along with other colors like white, green, pink(ish), orange and red, there are a baker’s dozen different divisions of type of Narcissus; and according to the literature, they don’t all bloom in spring. (What a notion.)

Triandrus daffs in Division 5 nod demurely rather than shout about spring while Cylamineus look as if they’re yelling into the wind. Jonquilla, which have grassy foliage and generally more than one small fragrant flower per stem, are the source of a great semantic debate: All jonquils are daffodils, but not all daffodils are jonquils.

Trumpet daffodils need nevermore be confused with the “large-cupped”. “Small-cupped” are obviously more perianth than corolla (the perianth being the outer petals and the corolla the central cup that makes daffodils daffodils and not amaryllis – although those are in the same family.) “Doubles” don’t look much like daffs at all and in any case aren’t the same as the similarly different “split cups” of Division 11.

Tazettas are the paperwhites that either perfume or stink our living rooms to high heaven around Christmas time. They’re not hardy here but you have nothing to lose by planting them along your sunniest south-facing wall because they can’t be forced to bloom again indoors.

Twist my arm and I’ll reveal that Poeticus are my favorite. Round white petals surround flattened green-centered scented cups outlined with a whisper of red. Beat that, Mr. Wordsworth. But I also love Bulbocodium daffodils because their “hoop skirt” cups and insignificant petals make them look exactly like E.T.

Daffodils are just about the easiest, tough-as-nails plant to grow – evidenced by the fact that even most non-gardeners have a few in the yard or popping up through pavement cracks. Truly, if the bulbs are left undisturbed (a challenge for us gardeners) in the right place (not in a swamp or under deep evergreen shade), they’ll increase ranks and outlive us all. We also have to restrain ourselves from removing deflated foliage before it has yellowed – at least give it a good 6-8 weeks to feed next year’s flowers.

According to legend, my Uncle Fuss came perilously close to poisoning his family by slicing up my aunt’s daffodil bulbs for a salad. They don’t smell like onions…  The good news is, the same poisonous alkaloids that might have snuffed my cousins protect the plants from deer graze and squirrel mischief. – But squirrels will occasionally chuck bulbs over their shoulders in search of the tasty fertilizer some of us insist on dusting in the planting hole.

In my own garden, daffodils are among the few plants that preceded me. The one that grows up through a sliver of earth between my driveway and a stonewall makes me laugh out loud. The others were planted out of sight along the north-side foundation. Although I hate to deprive my neighbors of the best view of my garden they’ll have all year, I bring most of those flowers inside. Because, like A.A. Milne once said in an essay on the subject, “a house with daffodils in it is a house lit up, whether or no the sun be shining outside. Daffodils in a green bowl – and let it snow if it will.”