Narcissus

Family: Amaryllidaceae

No matter how esoteric or skilful one’s horticultural endeavours become, we all have to start somewhere. In my case, Freesia¬†‘Burtonii’ and the classic primrose (Primula vulgaris) were amongst the earliest plants that I poked, prodded and shifted – primarily because they were already present within my childhood garden.

Inevitably, daffodils were not far behind.

Growing up in the vicinity of Cornwall Park, the massed appearance of daffodils on Twin Oaks Drive was a significant local event, whilst in our own garden, erlicheers and ‘King Alfred’ daffodils helped to mark the turn of the seasons towards spring. Aside from the unsurprisingly welcome appearance of golden flowers beneath late winter’s leaden skies, the degree to which daffodils take care of themselves goes a long way towards explaining their wide appeal.

As with certain other bulbs, their enduring presence often points towards prior habitation and also serves as a more conscious marker for memory – as demonstrated in the image below of Narcissus bulbocodium amongst headstones at Waikumete Cemetery.

The distribution of the genus is centred around the Mediterranean, with the Iberian Peninsula (Spain in particular) and Morocco holding the greatest diversity of species. These assume a wide array of sizes and floral forms, from diminutive characters such as Narcissus romieuxii and Narcissus cantabricus (which typically achieve a height of 10cm or less) to the substantial clumps formed by N. papyraceus (which can exceed 1m when fruiting) and N. longispathus (whose flower stems have been recorded at over 1.5m tall, despite typically remaining relatively compact).

Daffodils are largely untroubled by pests and diseases, with one glaring exception – the dreaded narcissus bulb fly. Opinions on the control of this unassuming but highly assiduous villain (which resembles a small bumblebee) vary, although it is universally acknowledged that there are no truly effective organic measures of control beyond brute force.

Accordingly, the emergence of the bulb fly in October is accompanied in our garden by the girding of loins – as I engage in a fast-moving battle with fly swat in hand. Needless to say, this represents a special spectacle for anyone present at the time.

Narcissus viridiflorus

If one is sufficiently optimistic (or possibly just a bit dim), failure can act as a precursor to success. This is what I told myself on the fourth occasion that I tried to grow this remarkable species from seed. Surely, multiple failures would only improve my statistical likelihood of success.

As is often the case, I suspect that the successful fourth sowing had more to do with timing than anything else – which was more closely aligned with N. viridiflorus‘ growth season of autumn. Fortunately, I had also been saved from a wait of several years to see Narcissus viridiflorus’ unusual, spidery flowers by the opportunity to buy a handful of bulbs from expert growers within NZ.

To date, we have found cultivation to be fairly simple in the open garden, although one can only make unequivocal statements about a plant’s ease of culture after a period of several years.

This enigmatic autumn-flowering species is well and truly an outlier within the genus, as the only species with entirely green flowers. In common with a significant number of Mediterranean bulbs (including Scilla peruviana, Muscari comosum, Dipcadi serotinum, Crocus serotinus and several Narcissus species), N. viridiflorus occurs in both Spain and North Africa.

Flowering is associated with the onset of autumn rains, which saturate the heavy clay soils that this species frequently favours in the wild. When in bloom, flowering bulbs generally produce no leaves; a feature that it shares with the similarly autumn-flowering N. serotinus1. The flowering stem remains green throughout flowering and seeding, and is thought to perform some photosynthetic function.

Narcissus viridiflorus’ elegant floral form and unusual colour has been utilised in the breeding of several well-regarded cultivars (including the New Zealand-bred ‘Emerald Sea’), whilst the species readily hybridises in the wild with the equally unusual Narcissus cavanillesii to form the hybrid Narcissus x xanthochlorus. Wild hybrids have also been recorded between this species and the white-flowered Narcissus serotinus.

Footnotes

  1. As noted within John Blanchard’s fine publication, ‘Narcissus : A Guide to Wild Daffodils’ (1990. Woking : Alpine Garden Society).