Mini marvels

GARDENS TO VISIT

Saturday 13th and Sunday 14th April – Springfields Hort. Soc. Annual Daffodil Show, Springfields Festival Gardens, Camel Gate, Spalding PE12 6EU

Open Gardens where you might find specimen miniature daffodils:

Fri 29th March (11am-4pm)
Easton Walled Gardens
For NGS. Adm £9.50, chd £5. Light refreshments.

Sat 30th March (11am-3pm)
Oasis Garden
Rear of Your Place, 236 Wellington Street, Grimsby, DN32 7JP. For NGS. Adm £3, chd free. Refreshments in aid of Your Place.

Sun 31st March (10.30am -4.30pm)
Woodlands
Peppin Lane, Fotherby, Louth LN11 0UW. For NGS. Adm £5, chd free.


Words by:
Steffie Shields
Featured in:
March 2024

Steffie Shields turns her focus to the beauty of miniature daffodils, which herald the beginning of the new season.

March might make us believe that winter is all but over. As gardens spring into floral action, one hardy flower shouts springtime more than most.

The sturdy, stiff, hollow-stemmed daffodil braves late frosts, withstands wind and, even as skies are overcast, remains steadfast in heralding sunshine.

Our ancestors enjoyed the delicate wild daffodil, a strange word derived from the Dutch “affo dyle” or “that which comes early”. Once commonly called ‘Lenten lily’ and ‘jonquil’ with its familiar yellow trumpet shape, or corona, and pale lemon outer petals, or tepals, botanists named this wildflower, native to southern Europe, Narcissus pseudo-narcissus. Reaching up to 35 centimetres, it is shorter than ornamental garden varieties, and was originally introduced by the Romans, who believed the plant had medicinal qualities. Yet daffodils are toxic, and subsequently thankfully rabbit-resistant and avoided by deer.

Immortalised by poet William Wordsworth’s “host of golden daffodils”, I prefer John Keats’ thought-provoking, pastoral description:

Some shape of beauty moves away the pall
From our dark spirits. Such the sun, the moon,
Trees old and young, sprouting a shady boon
For simple sheep; and such are daffodils
With the green world they live in…

Historic blooms
Low-growing wild daffodil colonies have long since disappeared unfortunately, probably robbed out. Once massed on edges of damp woods and verdant valley meadows, some pockets remain in designated Ancient Woodland sites. You must travel to find their “green worlds” in both north and southwest England, and of course in Wales, where they became the national emblem.

However, later this month, you might be lucky to come across one of the oldest daffodil cultivars, Narcissus ‘Van Sion’, an early dwarf daffodil 30 centimetres high, also known as Telamonius plenus.

Easily recognisable for its greenish-tinged outer petals, this frilly little flower was first featured as ‘Master Wilmer’s Great Double Daffodil’ in the book Paradisus (1629) by the great herbalist, John Parkinson. Keep an eye out in old gardens and in the woods in older historic parks.

Incredibly, over 23,000 cultivars now enrich spring gardens. Daffodils are easy to research online, categorised into 13 different divisions for both garden and exhibition purposes, based on their characteristics varying in stature from dwarf to very tall.

One Daffodil Photo Database (https://daffseek.org/) shows more than 24,000 photos. How our great grandparents would delight in today’s amazing, bright and diverse hybrid assortment on offer, either online, or from nursery catalogue or garden centre. Lincolnshire is blessed with specialist bulb growers and Chelsea gold medal winners. Springfields Festival Gardens in Spalding holds one of five National Collections with over 450 varieties.

Choosing varieties
We inherited a reasonably varied collection of Narcissus when we bought our Old Orchard garden, mostly blooming through April and into May. Over recent years, I have been drawn to collect early-flowering miniature daffodils, officially those graceful flowers with all parts proportionately small, less than 50 mm in natural spread, many from Division 12 (Miscellaneous). Their varied qualities, versatility and unusual “shape of beauty” have proved useful for filling smaller spaces or gaps especially in the front of flower beds.

If you are new to gardening, most daffodil bulbs are relatively cheap, reliable and easy to grow. Deciding which variety can be a challenge. Don’t get carried away, as in a sweet shop, ending up with “all-sorts” that either open all at once – or bloom in random spots as if planted by scatter-gun. Select shades of cream and yellow which will harmonise with lemon primroses or contrast blue Anemone blanda and scillas or ‘Barbie-doll’ coloured hyacinth. Choose carefully to have daffodils flowering, as sweet as sherbet lemons, continually in your garden for four months!

Invest in those bulbs that have earned a prestigious Award of Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society.

They seldom disappoint if given relatively dry conditions during their summer dormant period and left undisturbed in bare slightly damp soil, or in grass cut short once their leaves have died down.

Consider where these mini-beauties might flourish before purchase – perhaps a generous quantity to naturalise in drifts encircling shrubs and barren deciduous trees, or small groups in a rockery. Enjoy their striking fragrance close-up in tall pots either side of the front door.

Just 15 centimetres high, the dainty, pale yellow, hoop petticoat daffodil dancing amongst a swathe of rich purple crocus is a sight to remember. The central corona is exceptionally large in relation to its tiny, pointed surrounding segments. Blessed with one of the strangest forms and longest Latin names: Narcissus bulbocodium subsp. Bulbocodium  var. conspicuous, where bulbocodium means ‘woolly bulb’.

Narcissus ‘Tête-à-tête’ (‘head to head’, 15 centimetres, AGM), a post-World War II favourite miniature, bears one to three flowers, each with buttercup-yellow petals and a darker, egg-yolk yellow, cup. They make attractive clusters on a dry verge by a pond or water feature reflecting blue skies. Perhaps this is a sublime nod to that Ancient Greek legend of the hunter Narcissus, who fell in love with his own reflection in a pool and where he died this flower sprang up.

N. ‘Eaton Song’ (30-50 centimetres AGM) is equally versatile. Notice its two-tone shallow orange-yellow trumpet with cream, swept-back outer petals, plus a charming, yellow halo close to the base of the trumpet. These sweet, long-lasting flowers, usually three to a stem in early to mid-spring, would be ideal for lining the edges of a path.

One of my most successful purchases, N. ‘Topolino’ (30 centimetres high, AGM) first introduced in 1923, might almost be mistaken for a wild daffodil, although the pointed outer tepals are creamy white and the ruffle-edged trumpet more of a lemon yellow. The Italian name meaning ‘little mouse’ was also given to Mickey Mouse! My ‘Topolino’ treasures encircling the rowan tree, a “welcome” on the drive, naturally make me smile.

Each small flower of Narcissus cyclamineus ‘Jet-fire’ (30 centimetres high, AGM) has reflexed yellow petals, exaggerating its curious, narrow, hot-orange trumpet. This multi-awarding dwarf variety, planted in clumps along the limestone wall bordering the churchyard, added colour and striking elegance.

Planting and dividing
Get to know a “new to you” variety. Come mid-autumn, plant the bulbs in a pot or container on the patio near the house. Once the flowers open in early spring, decide an appropriate new spot for these newcomers. Dig a suitable-sized hole to take the entire pot, as if making a ‘show garden’ with perfect partners. If happy with the effect, then later, after those strappy leaves have died down, plant the bulbs properly in the ground, roughly twice their depth. If not, move elsewhere!

Don’t forget to deadhead faded flowers, preventing them going to seed, for better blooming next spring. Lift and divide the bulbs every few years.

Every spring, I am reminded of the wise country doctor who, decades ago, on hearing I was depressed, after a strong course of antibiotics for a nasty winter chest infection, pronounced with conviction: “You will come out with the daffodils!” How true.

My cheerful, bright mini marvels never fail to prove a March morale booster, bringing hope, optimism and promise of a glorious Eastertide.



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