Why daffodils are the new tulips

Daffodils flower early, come in a wide range of shapes and sizes, smell gorgeous and flower for weeks

Light bulb moment: Alice planting daffodils in her south London garden Credit: Clara Molden

This time last year, I was hastily shoving dozens of daffodil bulbs into every patio pot within a 10ft radius. I’d wound up with bags of the things, freebies from the nursery I’d made my bulb order with that year. I remember my scepticism: it was late October, the grass was carpeted with yellow leaves, the clematis was looking jaundiced. I don’t like yellow in the garden at the best of times, but the notion of a bright and bawdy daff was particularly unappealing.

Nevertheless, I – and they – persisted. And if my October mind was unconvinced, my March self was delighted. For in the depths of a wet, dark and miserable winter, there is nothing so cheering as a daffodil.

I had grown narcissus before: they’d merrily trumpeted from the troughs on the balcony, and I’d learned years ago to snaffle the £2 boxes of white miniature narcissus from the supermarket when they turn up at the end of summer. I’ve always been a fan of the elegant ‘Thalia’, with its dark green foliage and ghostly flower. I’m told it can be found in bargainous bulk in the DIY sheds if you look late enough in the season.

But last spring it felt like I was not alone in my new-found affinity for daffodils. If I had spent the first locked-down spring lusting after the candy-striped tulips of Instagram, 2021 was the Season of the Daff. Somerset garden and landscape designer Sean A Pritchard laid a smorgasbord of delicately deadheaded daffs on a striped tablecloth while florist and flower farmer Milli Proust lined her windowsill with them. I’m amazed there was any room for food on the Easter table of landscape designer ­Butter Wakefield, so laden was it with a forest of narcissi in bud vases. India Hurst of Vervain flowers painstakingly laid hers out to better document them for the next season’s order.

Now’s a good time to be buying bulbs and plonking them in whatever vessels you have Credit: Clara Molden

Everything was turning unexpectedly yellow when, on March 26, Charlie McCormick, arguably the internet’s most-followed flower show competitor, laid down the gauntlet: “Daffodils are so under-appreciated in favour of tulips,” he wrote on Instagram. “Look how epic they are.” His argument was convincing: daffs flower before tulips, come in a vast range of shapes and sizes, smell gorgeous and flower for weeks. Suddenly Tulipa ‘La Belle Époque’, the pandemic queen of our hearts, had a new rival.

Given all of the above, I am betting on a daff-tastic 2022. I’m getting married in April and half intend to carry a bunch down the aisle. Now’s a good time to be picking up bulbs, and while the platonic form of a narcissus – the tall, wind-­defying yellow numbers – is cheery, the sheer variety to play with makes it easily overlooked.

I call Penny Dawson, the second-generation owner of Twelve Nunns nursery in Lincolnshire, to talk about the small but exquisitely formed collection she has on offer: Narcissus cyclamineus – a dainty, bright yellow number that looks a little like a windsock in full gust – and Narcissus bulbocodium var. citrinus , a dwarf hoop-petticoat variety that is sherbert lemon pale. Both are ideal for alpine gardening, but will naturalise in grassland. Both are a far cry from “the bold, brassy daffodils that most people ­associate with narcissus,” Penny says, and hardly two-a-penny. “Narcissus cyclamineus the species is not easy to find, and that’s why we’ve focused on that, really. What we’re interested in is growing things that other people can’t grow.” It seems other people are ­interested in that too: Penny says Twelve Nunns has increased its ­production to cater for greater demand. “It’s incredibly pretty and dinky.”

Narcissus bulbocodium var. citrinus was also sourced by Penny’s father – a softer yellow than the more frequently seen bright yellow version. As with the cyclamineus, they are grown – and sold – in pots, rather than as dry bulbs, as they “need to stay damp at all times”. Both flower early and barely reach 15cm. Penny says they can make striking container plants but will be happier, in the long run, in the ground. “They’re clump-forming, and can look gorgeous in a small area, with snowdrops perhaps, where they can naturalise.” But wherever you plant them, make sure it’s not in full sun. Those with slightly acidic soil will be on to a winner.

Container gardeners would do well to learn from the collection curated by Susanna Grant, of London shade-plant shop Linda. Edited with both beginner and sophisticated urban tastes in mind, her list includes ‘Reggae’, “which has the most beautiful soft peachy-pink corona” and Narcissus poeticus var. recurvus, which Susanna says is “unbeatable – elegant, highly perfumed, looks great in borders or containers and is easy to grow”.

It’s amazing what removing daffs from the context of street furniture and lazy public landscaping can do, too. I loved the spray of delicate dwarf variety ‘Minnow’ and the irresistible ‘Pheasant’s Eye’ among hellebores and against ivy in my garden this spring. Susanna ­maintains they look their best in soft, woodland schemes: “I have ‘Pheasant’s Eye’ under a multistem silver birch with some forget-me-nots and Tellima grandiflora ‘Forest Frost’, and they really sing.”

What really convinced me on the whole daffs thing, though, is growing them indoors. The frill of ‘Bridal Crown’, the room-filling scent of ‘Geranium’, the eternally chic ‘Paperwhite’ – all are heaven forced in a bowl. These are easy to pot up in grit in ­coming weeks and left somewhere cool and dark to force, after which they’ll bloom for Christmas. But I tend to leave it all a little later to have them as a flowering January blues cure.

If you can’t find the energy, there’s no shame in plonking shop-bought shooting bulbs in whatever vessel you have to hand, and topping with garden moss if you have some. Even the pots of bright ­yellow ‘Tête-à-tête’ you can find by the checkout for a couple of quid can ­elevate a gloomy winter room. When the stems start to droop, tie a bit of string or ribbon around them to keep everything upright.

And how could I write about narcissus without mentioning my favourite daff-fact? Squirrels can’t abide the taste of them, so your bulbs will remain unscathed. Take that, tulips.

Five best narcissus varieties to try

Credit: Alamy
  • Narcissus bulbocodium var. citrinus
    Palest yellow and long-flowering, this will offer delight in February and offer flowers for weeks.
  • ‘Reggae’
    Don’t let the peach put you off. This is a subtle and pretty narcissus that looks gorgeous against an old brick wall.
  • ‘Pheasant’s Eye’
    Also known as Narcissus poeticus var. recurvus, the squat orange-rimmed corona makes the largely white flower stand out, even in a park full of yellow daffs.
  • ‘Ice Follies’
    Delicate, ruffled and the colour of thick cream, this is the gateway back to Big Daff territory.
  • ‘Bridal Crown’
    Thoroughly frilly but with a phenomenal scent, these pack a punch when planted inside.