Green scene

Daffodils mean springtime


With the weather warming at the end of February and the sudden appearance of some early flowering bulbs, I fully expected to see drifts of daffodils by now.

The tips of their leaves have been visible for months, growing incrementally but steadily.

Our first heavy snowfall, however, has temporarily halted further any blooming. The daffodils have not been vanquished, however, and they often have to struggle on in the face of sudden inclement weather.

After checking around the neighborhood as well as the New York Botanical Garden, I can safely report that they are undaunted and will be captivating us shortly with their sunshine glow of yellow.

Have you ever noticed how many of the early flowering plants are yellow? These include winter aconite (eranthis hyemalis), the native marsh marigold (caltha palustris), and its evil invasive twin, the lesser celandine (ranunculus ficaria), daffodils (narcissus) and forsythia (genus forsythia).

Current speculation revolves, as usual, around the pollinators — in this case, flies, bees, butterflies and hawk moths. Insects and mammals utilize different parts of the light spectrum, with many pollinating insects operating in the range of ultraviolet light. The flowers, therefore, exploit this fact by creating patterns in ultraviolet that we can’t see.

In this case, the ultraviolet makes the yellow flowers appear blue and creates a bull’s-eye in the flower center where the reproductive structures are located. Anything that increases the attractiveness of a flower to a pollinator increases the rate of pollination, which is the entire purpose of the flower.

My burning question today is the actual difference between daffodil, narcissus and jonquil, since all three terms tend to pop up almost interchangeably. Research shows this is primarily a semantic issue. Although all of these flowers belong to genus narcissus, the general term “daffodil” refers to all various flower types, although jonquil refers only to a specific subtype — fragrant, multi-flowered stem with a short, flared center.

Given the popularity of daffodils and the multitudes of cultivars available in the market, it is not surprising that there is a national gardening group devoted solely to daffodils — the American Daffodil Society. Formed in 1954, its purpose is to promote research of the genus narcissus, to create more daffodil enthusiasts, register new cultivars, and work internationally on issues of classification and act as a clearinghouse for all matters daffodil.

They also established three awards for American hybridizers. The William C. Pannil Award is for a named standard that has shown outstanding qualities for a minimum of five years after registration. The John and Gertrude Wister Award recognizes an outstanding daffodil exhibited at the society’s national show.

Every time I open a catalog for spring flowering bulbs, I am overwhelmed by the variety offered with numerous variations in color, as well as the perianth and the corona. The perianth are the petals and the corona is the tube-like structure in the flower center surrounding the stamen and pistils.

The daffodil society uses a classification system developed by the Royal Horticultural Society of the United Kingdom. It should be noted, however, that the color coding system is derived from the work of Tom Throckmorton of Des Moines, Iowa, who was both a physician and an award-winning horticulturalist, known as the “dean of daffodils.”

The horticultural society’s daffodil classification uses several characteristics — the color of various parts of the perianth as well as the corona, number of blooms on a stem, size of the corona relative to the perianth, number of units making up the perianth and the corona, and the angles of perianth in relation to the corona.

This has yielded 12 categories of hybridized flowers, and a 13th reserved for non-domesticated plants.

One of the best reasons to plant daffodils is that squirrels and deer will not eat them. The bulbs and foliage contain a poison called lycorine as well as calcium oxalate crystals — a serious irritant — present in many other plant species. These compounds make them dangerous to humans as well who have occasionally cooked them, mistaken for onions.

The narcissus are members of the amaryllidaceae family, and have been with us since the late Oligocene/early Micoene — approximately 23 million years. They are native to the region of the Iberian Peninsula.

The genus name derives from the Greek legend of the beautiful youth named Narcissus who fell in love with his reflection and drowned in a pool of water, reaching for his image.