I’ve always said, despite the calendar, when the first sweet-smelling jonquil blooms, spring is here. My jonquils say it’s here. I didn’t grow up with access to nursery-purchased bulbs but did have a chance to see many a naturalized stand of them in my rural ancestral community.
Little did I know that I was learning an immense horticultural lesson with each annual spring spectacle. I would later realize that many of the spring bulbs that thrived in Texas weren’t even in Dutch bulb catalogs. It turns out that most of the mass-produced bulbs in the world work on a cold-warm cycle. This is why we have to chill tulips and hyacinths in Texas. Without it, blooming won’t initiate. Most of the bulbs that do well in Texas work on a wet-dry cycle and don’t require time huddled up in your refrigerator crisper. This includes many in the genus Narcissus, which hale from the Mediterranean; whose climate mimics ours with mild, wet winters and hot, dry summers.
Another lesson that these childhood floral visits impressed on me was that the bulbs that grew with reckless abandon in Texas were smaller flowered heirloom cultivars and wild species that still possessed the will to survive on their own despite the harshness of neglect. These included narcissus (Narcissus tazetta), jonquils (Narcissus jonquilla, Narcissus x odorus, and Narcissus x intermedius), and the very same little Lent lily (Narcissus pseudonarcissus) that William Wordsworth immortalized. Once horticulturists and breeders bred giant-flowered daffodils, they no longer persisted as long-lived perennials in our harsh climate. Unfortunately, these gargantuan golden daffodils are the most popular to purchase. But instead of being rewarded with beauty for years, one most often gets perennial clumps of blue-green foliage instead.
Not all daffodils and spring bulbs even live to return each year. Those that are best adapted are often long-lived perennials though. These perennializing types often multiply to form large healthy clumps with nice blooms each spring. Some wild species like Narcissus jonquilla and Narcissus pseudonarcissus will even naturalize and spread by self-sown seed, like wildflowers, particularly on acid, sandy sites in East Texas.
Ideally, Texas-adapted Narcissus bulbs are planted when they are completely dormant in fall and start growing roots with the first autumn rains. Shoots generally appear during winter, with blossoms in early spring. It’s extremely important to plant them in a sunny location, or at least one that receives winter sun when they produce their foliage. Planting beneath evergreen trees or in shady sites will starve the bulbs. Good drainage is essential, especially for daffodils. Although all Narcissus prefer winter moisture, overly moist areas will often rot their bulbs. The best options for poorly drained and marginally wet areas are jonquils and snowflakes (Leucojum aestivum). A little garden fertilizer might be in order for larger flowered daffodils but if you choose truly adapted bulbs, no fertilizer at all is necessary. I find that it just stimulates winter weeds. After all, my old homeplaces were never fertilized. And even though dormant planted bulbs are the rule, I often divide truly adapted cultivars and species in full foliage and full flower. It’s important however to get them planted back into the ground, and watered in, as soon as possible. The worst that can happen is that they will skip blooming for a year. The most important rule of all when growing spring-blooming bulbs is to never cut their foliage while it’s still green and photosynthesizing. Each year’s crop of foliage produces the next year’s blooms. Tying the foliage into decorative knots isn’t healthy either. You want the foliage to mature and begin to turn yellow before cutting it back. I generally wait until Mother’s Day (or even better, Memorial Day) to perform this chore. Cutting back green foliage as soon as the flowers fade will starve the plants and ensure no blooms the following year. Cutting green foliage year after year will literally kill the bulbs by starving them to death.
Unfortunately, as you go west across Texas the number of adapted Narcissus cultivars decreases. East Texas is blessed with the most choices. Those that do best in most of Texas are generally early bloomers, with a few mid-season bloomers, and very few late bloomers. If you’ve never tried any before or failed with those that you have, here are a half dozen that I’d recommend as good perennials in Texas.
Carlton Daffodil (Narcissus pseudonarcissus ‘Carlton’): This 1927 daffodil is the most commonly planted in the world and sports soft yellow flowers with a light fragrance. The flowers aren’t as big as the large-flowered ‘King Alfred’ trumpet types but the plants are more apt to be successful perennials.
Campernelle Jonquil (Narcissus x odorus): This heirloom hybrid between a daffodil and a jonquil has been around for some 400 years and produces fragrant clusters of golden yellow blooms above rounded dark green foliage. It’s important to secure the perennial Southern heirloom strain however as the Dutch version is weaker and less adapted.
Grand Primo Narcissus (Narcissus tazetta ‘Grand Primo’): This tried and true heirloom has been around for several hundred years and is one of our latest blooming tazetta narcissus, allowing it to escape the cold damage that plagues its paperwhite cousins. The clusters of bicolor cream and white flowers have a powerful fragrance.
Golden Dawn (Narcissus x intermedius ‘Golden Dawn’): This 1958 tazetta-jonquil cross is among the latest blooming of our adapted Narcissus and produces a fragrant cluster of creamy yellow, bicolored flowers above healthy vigorous clumps. It’s a prolific multiplier.
Ice Follies (Narcissus pseudonarcissus ‘Ice Follies’): This 1953 Dutch daffodil is the second most numerous daffodil in the world and about as large a daffodil flower as a Texas gardener can hope to successfully produce over the long haul. The yellow and white bicolored flowers look like fried eggs.
Texas Star Jonquil (Narcissus x intermedius): Although jonquils are a bit more adapted to East Texas, this heirloom hybrid between a jonquil and a narcissus has been performing in varied Texas landscapes since the early settlers first brought it with them. It was even painted in France by the famous botanical artist, Redouté. Its primrose-yellow flowers are heavenly scented.
More information on growing Narcissus in Texas:
Growing Bulbs in the South by Scott Ogden (Timber Press)
Daffodils in Florida-A Field Guide to the Coastal South by Linda and Sara Van Beck
The Bulb Hunter (Texas A&M Press) by Chris Wiesinger and William C. Welch