Daffodils, whose appearance is an undeniable harbinger of spring, bring smiles not only to gardeners but to poets, too. When William Wordsworth lay on his couch and thought of their unforgettable nodding golden trumpets, he wrote that then “my heart with pleasure fills and dances with the daffodils.”
The word daffodil is derived from asphodel, a related flower of the lily family. Asphodel for the Greeks conjured up a meadow encountered in the afterlife.
There is something about the rebirth of herbaceous perennials – a botanical group that includes plants that grow from bulbs, rhizomes, tubers, and corms – that is charged with melancholy. This is especially true as you grow older since you become accustomed to that fact that the floral display you see will be gone in a month or so and then you will again be faced with an extended period of flowerlessness. Morever, in another month after that, the leaves of your herbaceous perennial will die as well.
So that, in the end, the experience we have with herbaceous perennials is similar to that of our own life, a brief flowering before an extended period of darkness. But then there is an eternity to bulbs from which we can also take heart since daffodils, for example, never really die but naturalize or spread throughout the garden from one year to the next, living on in their offspring until the end of time.
There is a feature of daffodils that sets them apart from other bulbs and that is their toxicity. Deer and rabbits leave them alone. The alkaloid toxins in daffodils, seeping out of their stems, are so strong that they will cause other flowers to wilt when placed together with them in a vase. Next time you visit a florist, note that daffodils are isolated from other flowers in a bucket of their own. They must be soaked for six hours until toxins are fully removed at which point they can be placed in vase arrangements without causing an early demise of other blooms.
Narcissus, the botanical Latin name for daffodils, is an elaboration of narco, a word that means numbness and refers to the incapacitating and narcotic effect of daffodil toxins. Narcissus makes reference to a character in Greek mythology who was so enamored of his beauty, when reflected in the water of a passing stream, that he could not avert his gaze, froze into a narcotic somnolent state, and was transformed into a flower. It is not clear whether the flower was named for the myth or the myth originated with the flower, but the nodding aspect of daffodils is said to mimic the head of Narcissus bent admiring himself over a reflecting stream.
Although herbaceous perennials are generally associated with spring bloom, some flower in summer. The two most notable among these summer bloomers are gladiolus and dahlia. Gladiolus corms — which are swollen root stems — may be planted at virtually any time of the year in our area. For continuous bloom, space their planting over several months. Gladiolus requires a fast-draining sandy soil and regular water. To keep plants blooming year after year, it is advisable to remove their corms in late fall for winter storage. Throw away old corms and plant out the attached, newly developed ones the following spring.
My personal favorite among summer-blooming herbaceous perennials are the giant dahlias of central Mexico, which can grow up to 20 feet tall with blooms that are eight inches wide. While dahlia tubers can remain in the ground during winter, storing them over winter in sand or vermiculite will enhance their performance the flowing spring. Blooming dahlias should be available now in most nurseries and garden centers.
Tip of the Week:. A special sale of orchids to Daily News readers is being held by Art and Aurura Mendoza on March 22, 23, and 24 from 9am to 5pm at 16057 Nordhoff St., North Hills, 91343. Refreshments will be served. The Mendozas specialize in growing dozens of cymbidium orchid varieties, available in 8 inch and one gallon containers for $5-10 dollars. Dendrobium and Cattleya orchids will also be on sale. Cymbidiums are nearly always grown in containers but they may also be planted in the ground in suitably amended soil. Just the other day in West Los Angeles, I saw the most glorious cymbidium growing in the protective shadow of a bronze Cordyline.