Cult Flowers: Narcissus

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‘Cult flowers’ appeal to us so persistently that we respond to them in ways that don’t quite make sense.  Their grip on our imagination, our affections, and yes, our resources defy reason.

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Is it possible to fall in love with a genus of plant?  Absolutely. 

Across horticultural history you’ll find characters who left home continents behind to collect them.  You’ll find those who quit their day jobs to breed and raise them full-time.  And, sadly, you’ll find those who ignored their spouse’s better judgement to collect them…. year after beautiful golden year.

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To gain a deeper understanding of the many ways in which daffodils have been ‘cult flowers’ for the last few centuries, treat yourself to Noel Kingsbury’s beautiful and very useful book Daffodil: The Remarkable Story of the World’s Most Popular Spring Flower.  

Kingsbury, a beloved British landscape designer and horticulturalist, takes us on a journey of all things daffodil that actually begins in pharonic Egypt.  Yes, the Egyptian royals were talented gardeners, collecting many of the same plants that we do today:  Narcissus, Iris, lilies, Alliums, and many sorts of fruit bearing trees.  Kingsbury tells us that Ramses II’s  mummy was found with a Narcissus bulb covering each eye.  Now that goes a bit beyond what even we moderns do to enjoy our spring daffodils!

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Because Narcissi return so reliably as winter transforms into spring, they’ve earned a mythic association with time and eternal life. They’re often planted around cemeteries in areas where they perennialize, where they return year after year in ever greater numbers.

Extremely poisonous, Narcissi have a narcotic quality when used medicinally.  They were used, in measured, carefully prepared potions, to sedate and treat pain.   Never mistake a Narcissus bulb for an onion; this has been done from time to time with disastrous results.

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I appreciate the poisonous qualities of daffodils and plant them with confidence where deer shred non-lethal flowers and shrubs.  And I plant a ring of daffodil bulbs around newly planted shrubs and trees, to protect their roots from voles.  In fact, we’ve learned to stop vole traffic to parts of our garden by planting rows of daffodils across their former paths.  Unlike chemicals that must be reapplied every few weeks, the daffodil solution proves permanent, growing denser and more effective with each passing year.

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Kingsbury gave me a good, basic understanding of the various species daffodils known and loved since at least the dark ages.  He quotes medieval manuscripts which describe the daffodils growing in certain royal or monastic gardens, often with small paintings to illustrate the flowers.  He then builds on that knowledge of the species, their characteristics and countries of origin to help explain the work of modern day daffodil breeders.

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There were already nearly 80 distinct types of daffodils recorded in British horticultural records by 1607, when British colonization began here in Virginia.  And yes, those early settlers brought their daffodil bubs with them, sometimes sewn into the clothing they wore on the voyage.

Daffodils were planted early on all over coastal Virginia, and they thrived here.  As European/American settlers moved ever further west, they took their daffodils with them.  So much so, that Kingsbury describes how Native Americans carried daffodil bulbs with them along the Trail of Tears.

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By the early 19th Century, there were 150 distinct types of daffodils cultivated in England.  A Yorkshire vicar dissected all 150 varieties to develop a classification system and discovered that many of the flowers were sterile.  This was in the early days of enthusiasts and scientists understanding the principles of hybridization, and at this time all of the known daffodils were species or natural hybrids.

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Daffodils had perennialized across Virginia’s Gloucester Peninsula when Brent Heath’s grandfather, Charles, visited in search of the farmer who grew a terrific cantaloupe.  It seems his grandfather wanted to arrange personal deliveries of the especially tasty melon.  He found the farmer, and  he also found fields of daffodils, ripe for the picking.  Residents in those days picked the wild daffodils to sell as cut flowers in cities up and down the coast.  As late as the 1980s, daffodils were sold on street corners in Richmond by vendors who purchased daffodils from Gloucester, as soon as they bloomed each spring.

Charles Heath ended up buying the family’s current properties in Gloucester where Brent and Becky’s Bulbs still does business today, and went into the cut flower business.

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That is how the Heath family first entered the wonderful world of growing daffodils.  Charles Heath had connections in Europe, and soon introduced many new European varieties of daffodils to his Gloucester fields, where the flowers were picked, bundled, shipped and sold each spring to ports along our East Coast.  His son, George, continued in the business and had one of the largest collections of Narcissi varieties in North America when his son, Brent was born.

Brent tells stories of how he was instructed at a very early age in how to properly pick and bundle daffodils for sale, and he earned his pocket money by picking daffodils each spring; and later by raising bulbs from small divisions on the family farm, and selling his bulbs.

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Eventually, Brent Heath decided that he wanted to also develop new hybrids.  He was mentored by skilled breeders, and had the knowledge, patience, and attention to detail to develop and bring to market many beautiful new hybrids.  The Heaths are known and respected internationally for their tremendous selection of daffodil and other bulbs, and for the health and vigor of the bulbs they sell.

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Narcissus ‘Katie Heath’ named for Brent Heath’s mother.

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Some might wonder why certain people passionately devote their lives to breeding new varieties of a single type of plant.  Once there are already many thousands of named and recognized varieties, why would the world want more?

Consider that it may take a Narcissus seedling up to five years to flower, and once selected, it may take another 10 to build up a large enough stock of bulbs to market commercially.

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Mary Gay Lirette, a Heath hybrid.

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Only someone passionately devoted to their art would persist so long in the pursuit of offering a new variety of daffodil to the world.  But there are many breeders willing to make the commitment, and who have the resources to generate new hybrids.

On the one hand, there is a desire to perfect the plant, generating stronger stems, more disease resistance, hardiness, and a willingness to grow well and perennialize under a wide variety of growing conditions.  On the other hand, there is the desire to produce certain combinations of form and color.

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Miniature daffodils appeal to many hobbyists with limited growing space, and many breeders are working now to develop ever more combinations of flower form and color on a miniature plant.

Kingsbury opens his chapter on daffodil breeders with a photo of a delicate white miniature daffodil, with a tiny green cup and recurved petals, which stole my heart.  I skimmed ahead for its name so I might order it.

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Sadly, it was an ‘unnamed seedling’ produced by California breeder Harold Koopowitz, and not yet on the market when Daffodil was published in 2013.  The ability to create such variety within the relatively limited scope of the Narcissi characteristics defines both the breeders’ passion and the collector’s lust for new plants.

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Most of us think about the classic yellow trumpet daffodil as our ideal.  It is sunshiny yellow, has six nearly identical petals surrounding a long, wide trumpet, or corona, of the same color.  It stand about 16″ tall on a soft hollow green stem, and has narrow green leaves surrounding it.

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Pure white N. ‘Thalia,’ two flowers per stem, blooms beside double N. ‘Cheerfullness’

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Now, imagine this same flower in white, and you have N. ‘Mount Hood.’ Daffodils may have white, yellow, yellow-green, golden, peach, or pink petals.  The corona may be long or very short, wide or narrow, frilly, doubled, or split into sections, and splayed back against the petals. It may appear in white, green, orange, gold, red, peach, yellow or pink.  Some doubles look like Camellias, their coronas are so full.

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N. ‘Obdam, a sport of N. ‘Ice Follies’

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The petals themselves may be wide or narrow, rounded or pointed, twisted, long or very, very short.  Flowers may be scented or not, one to a stem or many, and the stems themselves may be anywhere from 4″ to 24″ tall.

Finding the variations and interesting new combinations makes the work endlessly fascinating.

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N. ‘Erlicheer’, 1934

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Daffodils bloom over a long season here in coastal Virginia, some as early as late December and some as late as May.  They arise from the wintery earth to grow and bloom when little else is in season, and then once the leaves have re-fueled the bulbs for another year, they die back and disappear.  If naturalized in grass, the grass can be mown again a little more than a month after the flowers finish.

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Many of us enjoy growing daffodils around shrubs and under trees.  They make their spectacular spring show, and then are gone as the trees begin to fill in the canopy of their summer leaves.  We don’t have them around for long enough to grow tired of them.  In our garden, by mid-spring, a new variety or two opens each week.  As the first ones fade, the late daffodils are just blooming.

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N. ‘Delnashaugh’

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I’ve ordered lots of 250 or 300 bulbs of the same daffodil variety from the Heaths each summer for the last several years.  Gardening friends and I divide up the order, each of us growing some number of the same variety in our own yards.  This is a great way to purchase enough bulbs to make a good patch of a variety, without breaking the budget.  Generally, the larger the quantity you can order, the better the price per bulb.

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This year, I’m undecided which variety to order.  I’ve asked some friends for their opinions on my short list of ten varieties, heavily weighted towards the Heath’s own introductions.  I happen to like the more unusual flower forms, like the doubles and split coronas.

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N. ‘Madison’

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I also like those with white petals and color in their corona.  I believe we are leaning towards a beauty called N. ‘Gentle Giant,’ which has white petals and a frilly, bright orange cup.  Whichever one we choose, we will be happy growing it.

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Daffodils are happiness inducing flowers, greeting us each spring with cheerful faces and easy demeanor.

No wonder they have remained ‘cult flowers’ over many centuries of human history, growing perhaps more popular with each passing year.  A gardener knows that the bulbs planted this fall will bloom again and again, long past the time when another gardener has taken over the work.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

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Blossom XLVII : Corn Leaf Iris

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Iris bucharica, the ‘corn leaf Iris,’ brings fragrance, beauty and forage for pollinators to the early spring garden.  It was first collected near the city of Bukhara, Uzbekistan, in the late 19th Century, in the mountains just north of the border with Afghanistan.  Bulbs were shipped to the English bulb merchant Van Tubergen, who introduced it into the nursery trade.  Some gardeners call these ‘Bukhara Iris’ after their place of origin, high in the mountains of Central Asia.

As with so many small Asian Iris grown from bulbs, the bulbs like cold, snowy winters and hot, dry summers.  In their native environment, they grow in gravely soil on the slopes of mountains above 5000 feet.   These conditions are nearly impossible to provide in coastal Virginia without giving a bit of thought to how and where to plant the bulbs.

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These Iris want excellent drainage, rocky, slightly alkaline soil, and full to partial sun.  They are hardy in Zones 5-9.   I have planted my bag of bulbs brought home last December from the Heath’s Bulb Shop in Gloucester in several different situations to observe how they perform in each.

I planted some in the ground, under a dogwood tree, covered in some course gravel mulch, one or two in pots in partial shade, and another couple in full sun, directly into the ground around some other bulbs.

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Iris bucharica bloom this week at the Williamsburg Botanical Garden.

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I noticed the first beautiful yellow and white flower blooming in full sun at home on Sunday, in the upper garden near other bulbs.  The bulbs planted under gravel mulch in partial shade had buds and leaves but no open flowers.  The bulbs planted in pots were showing leaves but not buds.

These Iris are called ‘corn leaf Iris’ because the plant itself resembles a corn plant.  The leaves are shiny and soft, growing from opposite sides of the main stalk and resemble corn leaves in their shape and drape.

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Our Iris were in bud on Sunday, and sport three flowers today.

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The first flower opens at the top of the stem, but later flowers emerge from where leaves join  the main stem, much likes ears of corn grow from the main cornstalk above a leaf.  The stem continues growing and more flowers bloom as the stem gets taller, for a total of around five to seven  blooms per plant.

Brent and Becky’s have offered Iris bucharica in their catalog for a number of years, but this is the first year I have given it a try.  It is fun to try a few new plants each year, don’t you think?

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Iris bucharica bulbs have fleshy roots, unlike most other Iris bulbs.

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I like the delicate, almost translucent quality of the flower’s standards and falls.  Their colors blend so well with the many daffodils blooming now in our garden that my partner hardly noticed these little Iris until I pointed them out.  As with most other Iris, deer and rabbits leave these flowers strictly alone.

I’ve read about Iris bucharica offered in shades of purple and blue, but the yellow and white are all I’ve yet seen available.  They are very pretty and cheerful on these early spring days when we still have nights a bit below freezing and cold winds blowing all day.  The flowers are said to be fragrant, but I’ve not noticed a fragrance.  Others, who don’t live with a cat, may be better able to smell subtle fragrances…..

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March 21, 2019.  These plants develop very quickly once they wake up for spring.

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I am told that the secret of keeping these Irises going year to year is to make sure their bulbs don’t get waterlogged in heavy, wet soil in summer.  Raised beds, rock gardens, or soil that drains well would best suit these Iris.  Alternatively, one can wait until their leaves fade in mid-summer and then dig them up and dry them out in a garage for a few months before replanting them when one plants daffodils in autumn.

I am still experimenting with gravel mulch, and have so far experienced great success.  I intend to add more gravel to our Forest Garden in the coming weeks, and will make sure that all the areas with the Iris Bucharica have gravel mulch and just leave them be as their leaves die back.

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It’s looking more likely that we’ll add another bag of these unusual Iris to our fall bulb shopping list, and plant a few more around the garden.  The bulbs increase, year to year, when they are happy, eventually forming beautiful clumps of early Iris.

Bulbs are usually a great investment, and if sited properly, take care of themselves.  Spring ephemerals such as these finish fueling their bulbs for next year and die back, just as you need their garden space for summer perennials.

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These corn leaf Iris came into bloom right as the reticulatas were finishing.  I expect the Iris x hollandica to come into bloom, and maybe even some of the German bearded hybrids to begin blooming, as these little yellow corn leaf Iris finish.

If you love Iris, as we do, and want to lengthen your season of enjoyment, these Iris Bucharica are a good choice.  Whether you add them to a pot of spring flowering bulbs or find a great spot in one of your own borders or beds, this is an unusual spring bulb that you’ll certainly enjoy growing.

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Woodland Gnome 2019

 

Sunday Dinner: Persistence

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“One bulb at a time.
There was no other way to do it.
No shortcuts-
-simply loving the slow process of planting.
Loving the work as it unfolded.
Loving an achievement that grew slowly
and bloomed for only three weeks each year.”
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Jaroldeen Asplund Edwards

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“Discover a purpose that gives you passion.
Develop a plan that makes you persistent.
Design a preparation that motivates you
to optimize your potentials.
Do it because you love it!”
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Israelmore Ayivor

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“To persist with a goal,
you must treasure the dream
more than the costs of sacrifice
to attain it.”
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Richelle E. Goodrich

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Waiting
is a form of passive persistence.”
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Ogwo David Emenike

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2019

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“A river cuts through rock,
not because of its power,
but because of its persistence.”
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James N. Watkins

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“You plan by dreaming,
you learn by doing
and you succeed by persisting.”
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Debasish Mridha MD

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Blossom XLV: First Snowdrops

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“In the oddity or maybe the miracle of life,
the roots of something new
frequently lie in the decaying husks
of something old.”
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Craig D. Lounsbrough

Once the rain finally stopped, the clouds blew out to sea, and the sun shone golden as it dropped towards the west, I finally felt moved to head out of doors to putter a little in the garden.  How could I not?  It was a rare warmish afternoon and the sun was shining.

It was only after planting out some potted Cyclamen, and a few odd things  that had been languishing in a corner of the garage, that I wandered up to the top of the garden to see what there was to see.  There is always something to see, even if it is nothing more than a swelling bud or a few more green leaves shyly poking up through winter’s mud.

And so it was that I braved the squishy paths and found myself wondering at the bit of fresh whiteness at my feet.  Snowdrops!  The first blooming bulbs of the season!

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What a quiet, special moment that creeps up so unexpectedly, to see the first flower of  a new spring while still  in the midst of winter.   It is like a sigil  for what is yet to come.

The old year has passed away, but the remains of those former days remain.  And out of the decaying leaves and soggy ground something pristine and fresh and bright emerges, as if by some old magic.  Snowdrops are simple things, tiny and meek.  They shyly nod just inches above the soil, ephemeral and fragile.  And still they exhibit the sheer life force to survive and carry on irregardless of the forces of winter.

Who would not be inspired and encouraged by such a sight?  Even though we have several weeks of freezing cold and winter storms ahead, spring began to stir in our garden today.  In our garden, and in this gardener’s heart.

Woodland Gnome 2019

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“Perhaps that is where our choice lies –
– in determining how we will meet the inevitable end of things,
and how we will greet each new beginning.”
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Elana K. Arnold

Fabulous Friday: Muscari

Muscari armeniacum

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Snowdrops, Crocus, Narcissus, Muscari…..

That is the usual order of early spring bulbs unfolding in our garden.  By the time the Muscari bloom, we feel that spring has arrived.

Our odd 2017 roller coaster weather has the usual order of things disrupted a bit.  We’ve found precious few Crocus flowers thus far, and we have a standard Dutch Hyacinth in full bloom, already, in a pot on the patio; while others are just crowning through the soil.  Most of the Daffodils are a month ahead of their 2016 appearance.

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Hyacinthus orientalis ‘Chicago’ in full bloom last Monday

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“Location, location, location!” as the realtors say.

Bulbs kept in pots often bloom a bit earlier than those in the open garden.  Anything which holds heat, like stones and paving, speed the unfolding, too.  This one has extra protection because we pulled its pot right up against the house, in full sun, during the last cold snap.

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We search, each spring, for the emerging Muscari, or ‘Grape Hyacinths,’ like a toddler searches for Easter eggs.  We love their bright perfection as winter fades into early spring.  These tiny perennial bulbs, originally from Europe, naturalize easily.  They crop up in unexpected places in the lawn, always giving a moment of pure joy as we discover them.

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After blooming, Muscari’s leaves grow on for several weeks as offset bulbs grow around the original.  We lift them in clumps as we replant their pots for summer, planting the Muscari  ‘in the green’ elsewhere in the garden.

Potted Muscari sometimes begin their growth in late fall. Their leaves grow on for months before their flowers bloom, persisting through winter.  Sometimes they turn brown around the tips and edges from the cold.  A more fastidious gardener would likely trim them up for spring, but I let them be, knowing the leaves fuel the flowers.

Hardy in Zones 4-9, Muscari always emerge early, well before the season has settled.

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Muscari armeniacum ‘Venus,’

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Muscari remain one of my favorite bulbs to tuck into potted arrangements each fall.  They are so tiny that they can be planted with one finger poking a little hole into the potting mix.  Drop one in, smooth the soil, and you’re done.

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This pot holds white Muscari, too. The leaves emerged in January, and white flowers will appear any day now. Grown in partial shade, this pot is a little behind the others.  Creeping Jenny spills over the front edge.

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Once the winter shrubs and perennials, Violas, ivy and moss have been settled into the pot, little Muscari bulbs can still be added, weeks later.

I’ve been wanting to grow white Muscari for a few years now, but they are hard to find.  I finally picked up these M. ‘Venus’ on a late trip to the Heath’s bulb shop last fall.

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These white Grape Hyacinths appeared yesterday, just in time for the wintery blast coming this weekend. They should do fine in the cold. But our Hydrangeas, already in leaf, will have their first leaves frozen without some protection.  We wrapped the smallest of the Hydrangea macrophylla in plastic bags first thing this morning.

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We nearly forget about our bulbs  over winter.  Their appearance in February and March comes as a little bit of a surprise.

We believe that is the appeal of spring bulbs, anyway.  “Plant them and forget them.”   Bulbs are one of the few things you plant with absolutely no expectation to enjoy them for the next several months.

When they finally emerge, often from the bare ground with little  warning, they feel like a special gift of nature.

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Muscari with Ajuga ‘Black Scallop,’ which turns a beautiful shade of burgundy in winter’s cold.  The Ajuga will bloom, soon, with flower stalks of about the same height in blue.

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Seeking out, and photographing the Muscari early this morning, got our Friday off to a fabulous start!

We went out first thing, knowing the temperatures would drop throughout the day.  It was already drizzling as we began covering the Hydrangeas and sliding empty pots over the little perennial starts I’ve been planting this week.

We’re taking precautions since we have some nighttime lows forecast in the 20’s over the weekend, and the “S” word lingers in the forecast for the days ahead.  A winter storm may form up off the coast and touch us with its icy fingers early next week.

That said, we decided to photograph the many flowers blooming in our garden this morning.  We’ll keep spring in our hearts even with wintery winds blowing around the doors and windows.

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I am setting an intention to find some wonderful, beautiful, and happiness inducing thing to write about each Friday. 

Now that the Weekly Photo Challenge has moved to Wednesdays, I am starting  “Fabulous Friday” on Forest Garden. 

If you’re moved to find something Fabulous to share on Fridays as well, please tag your post “Fabulous Friday” and link your post back to mine. 

Happiness is contagious!  Let’s infect one another!

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 Woodland Gnome 2017

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We invested  yesterday in creating a new garden feature. Warm and sunny, we enjoyed another perfect day working  in the garden.

 

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