The Garden Life: Narcissus bulbs are easy to fall in love with

By Robb Rosser, Columbian Gardening columnist


photoRobb Rosser

Daffodil and narcissus both refer to the many cultivated and natural forms of the genus Narcissus. Narcissus is the Latin or botanical name for all daffodils. Daffodil is the common name for all plants from the Latin genus Narcissus.

Their ease of cultivation, early flowering and reliability help rank narcissuses among the most popular spring bulbs. There are specific varieties to fit into any style of gardening. Most gardeners have a few specific types that they consider outstanding. You will hear all manner of terminology in reference to daffodils such as trumpet, large- and small-cupped, double-flowered and split corona.

I recommend picking up a good bulb catalog and reading the complete description of the plants you like the look of best. If you don't have catalogs on hand, check out the long list at the back of any garden magazine and order them online or by calling toll free numbers. Online, check out Van Bourgondien at, Brent and Becky's Bulbs at or enter "flower bulb catalog" into your search engine.

The basic criteria for choosing daffodils will include color, form, substance and performance. Colors should be pure and clearly defined. Form is subjective but includes the shape of the perianth, or outer segments, as well as the cup or trumpet of the blossom. Flowers of good substance have thick, waxy petals. As a result, the flowers remain in good condition longer. Of course, performance is key. Good performers are long-lived, flower freely and multiply rapidly in the garden.

Although I love the look of the multi-petal daffodils with their petticoat blossoms, they are the first to fall face down on the ground in a heavy rain. In my garden, at least, the more delicate, single-blossomed varieties stand up to our early spring weather. Because of their poisonous alkaloids, narcissuses are seldom troubled by deer or other wildlife, which makes them the ideal bulb for a country garden.

Muscari bulbs

One of my favorite garden bulbs is muscari or Grape Hyacinth. Bees go wild for the charming blue flower clusters. Suitable for sun or shade, these small, 5- to 8-inch plants are ideal for underplanting. The leaves of the grape hyacinth bulbs appear in autumn and remain all winter. The foliage serves as a marker for the dormant bulbs, so you won't inadvertently plant over them or, worse yet, dig them up. They are hardy and form large colonies that bloom just as the crocuses fade.

The botanical name for tulips, Tulipa, is derived from the Turkish word tulpend or turban, which the flower resembles. Many people think of Holland as the home of the tulip. In fact, tulips were unknown there until about the 16th century. Wild tulips are native to Turkey and western and central Asia, with only a few species occurring in Europe.

Many cultivated varieties were widely grown in Turkey long before they were introduced to European gardens. The botanist Clusius is credited with first growing tulips from seed sent from Turkey. In 1593, he became professor of botany at the University of Leiden and planted tulips in his garden there. They were soon widely distributed throughout Holland and began appearing elsewhere in Europe.

These bulbs became so popular in Holland that "tulipomania" developed early in the 17th century. People began speculating in bulbs of new colors and unusual shapes and paying extravagant prices for them. For one bulb, a seller was reported to receive two loads of wheat, four fat oxen, eight fat pigs, twelve fat sheep, two hogsheads of wine, four barrels of beer, two barrels of butter, 1,000 pounds of cheese, a bed, a suit of clothes and a silver beaker.

Fortunately for gardeners today, tulips are relatively inexpensive and readily available. Along with daffodils, they are one of the two most popular spring-flowering bulbs. Many hundreds of tulip cultivars have been developed and are classified according to fifteen horticultural divisions. Unless new plant introductions are your passion, why not simply plant and grow the ones that you think are the most beautiful.

Fall is the time of year to plant bulbs. Before you buy, go out in the garden and take a good look at the area you will be planting. Look for empty spaces where seasonal perennials have faded away for the season or places where plants have simply died. After planting your bulbs, mark the spot so that you will remember when spring rolls around. This will help you avoid the frustration of digging into spring soil and splitting open bulbs planted last fall.