an expert’s guide to daffodils, with brent heath
THE IDEA OF PLANTING 150 daffodil bulbs might sound like a heroic project to some of us. When I read that the New York Botanical Garden is planting 150,000 this fall—the first installment of a Million Daffodils project to celebrate its upcoming 125th anniversary year in 2016—it caught my attention.
It’s a staggering number. That would be a lot of holes to dig, or drill, as the Garden begins to enhance and expand its historic Daffodil Hill display first planted in 1920.
What didn’t surprise me was the involvement of Brent Heath, a longtime bulb merchant and daffodil hybridizer himself, who’s acting as an adviser in the ambitious undertaking. Brent, whose grandfather began the family bulb business in 1900, joined me on my public-radio show and podcast from his Brent and Becky’s Bulbs farm in Virginia to talk daffodils: the best golden oldies, new varieties on the horizon, and how to grow them.
Listen using the player below (or at this link) and read along. It’s the November 9, 2016 edition of the program.
my daffodil q&a with brent heath
Q. Like New York Botanical Garden’s Daffodil Hill, your family has been in daffodils a long time. I expect some interesting things have come out of the collaboration.
A. It has been an exciting thing. We have a new planting machine [below, at NYBG in action] that makes planting much easier than digging holes.
Q. [Laughter.] I’d bet there was something.
A. It’s a machine that was adapted from a Dutch field-planting machine, to work in a landscape situation. The blade simply lifts up 6 inches of turf. A conveyor meters out the bulbs at the proper density of about four bulbs to the square foot under the lifted-up turf. The turf then falls over and falls back in place, and it is pushed down by a press wheel. They planted 75,000 bulbs yesterday, my team says.
A. It’s pretty neat. You’re next in line. [Laughter.] You have to go through my son, Jay, who’s the fourth generation—and this is his baby; he’s the one who coordinates and puts it all together.
Q. Your grandfather, starting in 1900, got interested in bulbs. Did you help with the forensics of figuring out what was already on Daffodil Hill, and is being expanded?
A. My involvement started back in the 1970s with the botanical garden, when one of my mentors, Frank Cabot, invited me to come to New York City and do a talk. He introduced me to Carl Totemeier, who was at that point head of horticulture.
We’ve done quite a number of bulbs over the years, with Mike Ruggiero, who was there for a number of years. We did a wonderful planting called the Day-Daff Walk, daffodil and daylily combination between the Library and the Conservatory, with close to a 1,000 or more cultivars, interplanted with Hemerocallis.
And then other plantings over the years, and more recently as the Garden did a bit of renovation, taking some of the planting that had grown up, like a crabapple-planted area, and discovered when they cut a lot of the brush that these daffodils started coming up again.
A. They are amazing. The Garden wanted to know what they were, and fortunately I’m interested in the heirlooms, and we were able to catalog most of them. And they continue to come up and bloom, as they regain strength. Daffodils are sun-lovers, and when they’re in the shade, the solar collectors—the leaves—don’t produce enough starches and sugars for them to continue to bloom, but somehow they survive. When light is again available, they recharge and bloom again.
Q. Resurrection! Though they’re widely used in American gardens and have been for a long time, daffodils aren’t American native plants. How did they get here in the first place?
A. That’s an interesting thing. Typically innovative, brave women who came on an ocean voyage across the Atlantic to our shore from Western Europe, which is where daffodils grow wild. Spain, Portugal, France, Italy—and even Great Britain, where they are not native but were taken there by Romans. They brought with them something from home.
The daffodils being dormant in the summertime, they could ride on an ocean voyage for months, without any harm. The innovative ladies, who were given limited space to bring things from home, sewed daffodil bulbs into the hems of their skirts, I understand. They served two purposes: They got to bring something from home that was dear to them, and secondly, when they went up on deck, it held their skirts down when the breezes blew.
Q. Ballast! [Laughter.]
Daffodils—Narcissus—have various great traits. One obvious one and why I like them in my garden is that they seem to be of no interest to animal pests, which is wonderful. But beyond that there are many other reasons to love then and traits to appreciate. I love white ones and fragrant ones most of all, but you’re the connoisseur–you know them all. So what makes for a great daffodil?
A. Daffodils are poisonous to critters, but they taste so bad you don’t really have to worry about pets or children eating them. They are one of nature’s close-to-perfect perennial plants, in that they come back year after year, and in many instances for hundreds of years. As long as they’re getting enough sunlight, enough moisture, and the soil is fertile.
We find that daffodils perennialize beautifully. Often we misuse some terms and say that daffodils naturalize, and even though they’re not native plants, the hybrid daffodils do not seed about.
They’re not visited by insects, and they don’t set seed. They do perennialize—they come back—and they multiply by division. You plant one bulb and the next year she has a daughter bulb, and the next year probably each of those have daughter bulbs—so eventually you end up with nice clumps. At New York Botanical Garden, there are many bulbs that have been there since the 1920s that have never been dug and divided, and they’re still coming up and blooming beautifully.
Q. What other traits—like fragrance, for example—are the favorites among your customers?
A. I think that fragrance is indeed an added value. The scent of a flower, the scent of a woman—we spend lots of money on perfume [laughter]. But nature gives it to us without any additional charge. I love the fragrance, and two groups in particular have a relatively strong fragrance: those of the Jonquilla type daffodils, from southern Spain, Portugal and southern France. They have very narrow, dark green leaves and multiple flowers, and a very sweet fragrance. Those are in particular, I think, my favorite group. From this I’ve worked on a lot of hybrids.
Another group, the Tazettas, meaning “tiny cups” in Italian, can have up to 20 blooms on a stem. Their fragrance is a little more on the musky-sweet side. Paperwhites, for instance, are Tazettas. Some people love the smell; others check the bottom of their shoes.
A. Fragrance is a personal perception. Two other groups with lovely fragrance are the Poeticus—and it’s from this group that Narcissus got its name, and actually not from a Greek lad looking at himself in a pool of water. Nice myth, but it was from the Greek stem of narcos, which means stupor. Narcissus got its name because the alkaloid that renders the daffodil poisonous is a narcotic. Narcos/Narcissus, narcos/narcotic—it actually is deadly. It tastes so bad nobody ever eats them.
It’s said that Roman gladiators carried them in their saddlebags and when mortally wounded they would ingest one and dreamily pass off into the land of the gods. A nice story—though I’m not sure anybody ever ate one.
Q. What’s the most popular color with your customers?
A. Yellow is typically the most popular. Those soft, luminous yellows tend to be more eye-catching; more greenish-yellow, more chartreuse-y. You find a lot of the safety symbols have this chartreuse-y, luminous yellow color. You know yellow is the first color your eye separates out of the spectrum, so that’s why they do paint school buses yellow.
Other colors are popular, but we like the 55-mile-an-hour colors, the warm colors: yellows, reds and oranges. One can see them when they’re going down the highway lickety-split. Some of the whites are very lovely, and they blend with every other color, but they’re not as focally effective sometimes as more of the yellows, red, and oranges.
Q. How many named varieties of Narcissus are there now? I hate to hear; it’s probably some number like with daylilies.
A. With daylilies, it takes just about a year from pollinating a daylily and planting its seed to see it bloom. It takes five to seven for the daffodils. There are close to I think something like 28,000 named cultivars. We’ve only introduced about 50 of our own. We think they should be significantly different or better. Unfortunately in a lot of those 28,000, some are very difficult to tell apart.
Q. In catalogs, such as yours, bulbs are often labeled “early” and midseason” and “late.” How many weeks can I get from the genus Narcissus if I want to stretch it all the way—and I know that depends on where I live?
A. It does indeed. Here is coastal Virginia, on the lower part of the Chesapeake Bay, we start with N. cantabricus—a cute little miniature daffodil, a little hoop-petticoat or funnel-shaped flower, that will start blooming this month [November] and last well into the winter. The little bit of snowfall we get doesn’t bother it.
The next one would be ‘Rijnveld’s Early Sensation,’ which starts in January for us.
Going all the way through the season, we end up with ones from the Pyrenees and the Alps, and this is the Poeticus I was telling you about, where Narcissus got its name; the Poet’s Narcissus. It blooms here in early May. So we can typically get five months, maybe even a little more if the Lord is smiling and we get a mild, cool spring, when we get a long season of bloom.
Now the Poeticus has a spicy fragrance—so another fragrance group. And the cute little one called triandrus has a fruit-like fragrance; very mild, but fruit-like.
Q. So there is a range of scent.
I’m in Zone 5B, so for people in the northern parts of the country—maybe a couple of months of bloom from Narcissus we could get?
A. Your springs are often a bit more compressed, so two months or maybe three.
Q. We’ve talked about some of the traits of Narcissus, but what’s the grail that hybridizers are seeking? Is it garden-worthy stuff, or for cut flowers? What’s the direction?
A. The majority of the daffodils registered with the Royal Horticultural Society were registered by breeders who were looking toward the show bench. They were looking for daffodils that held their heads up well, that retained their color well, have very smooth texture and form, and would win them a blue ribbon.
Fortunately, some of those are also good garden plants that actually multiply well—that’s what growers are looking for because they want to make money on them. They don’t make good money unless it multiplies well.
Disease resistance is important from a grower’s perspective. Daffodil diseases are minimal, the major one being a fungal disease of the bulbs. When they are stressed they can catch a fungus like we catch cold or flu, and they can rot. It’s called Fusarium oxysporum basal rot. If your daffodils are grown well, they’re not as susceptible, and some are less susceptible than others.
A long season of bloom is an important one.
Q. Longer-lasting flowers?
A. Yes. We’ve been fortunate—I’m just a bee in the hands of the Lord as I go and spread pollen. I have favorite flowers and typically I use them as the mares, or mamas. I think smaller is perhaps in the future—more compact—and longer-lasting in bloom, and more attractive leaves. So those are the characteristics I’m looking for.
Typically I choose the stud or papa being a smaller miniature or species, and I go and spread a little pollen on her pistil and if the time of the day is right, the pollen grains grow back through that pistil to the ovary, where they’ll connect with a ovule, hopefully, turn into a seeds and in about six weeks I plant that seed, a little black, shiny seed, and if all is well five to seven years later I’ll see her and her sisters bloom.
Q. Patience is a virtue, Brent Heath. [Laughter.]
A. We have to be patient. And then I have to see if one is significantly different or better. The difficult part is going through and weeding out the ones that aren’t up to par.
Q. Maybe some of those could be used for “naturalizing”—which I know you say is a misnomer. Let’s talk about that “perennializing,” like what’s going on at NYBG. These are big plantings in turf. How does it work, and do some classes or species of Narcissus do better at this than others?
A. Certainly. It’s sort of a climate thing. If you look at the range of the Narcissus in the wild, as botanists continually change things–I think they’re having job security—they’re now saying there are about 50 species of Narcissus. There used to be 150. They’re coming from North Africa, the southern part of the Mediterranean up through Europe, with Spain and Portugal being the greatest part. But there is one native to the Netherlands, on over to Germany, and into Oesterreich—what we call Austria—on over maybe up to Turkey and down into Greece and Italy. So a fairly restricted range for Narcissus.
But those from the higher altitudes and the cooler climates that work better in cooler climates. Those from the southern Mediterranean area work down along the Gulf Coast and can go as far as northern Florida. Those don’t require as much cold to vernalize, or encourage the flower to develop and bloom.
Whereas those from up in the Alps, like the pheasant’s eye or Poeticus recurvus…
Q. My favorite.
A. …it requires a good 16 weeks of cold below 40 degrees.
Q. So matching one that’s from as similar a climate as yours will give you the best results for perennializing. [Below, a portion of NYBG’s Daffodil Hill planting.]
Q. Everybody probably asks you this, but how deep do I plant relative to the size of the bulb?
A. It’s a bit soil specific, however typically we recommend three times the height of the bulb to the bottom of the hole. So a bulb that’s 2 inches tall goes 6 inches to the bottom of the hole.
So that’s typically in well-drained soil. The bulbs like to be in well-drained soil. They can still work fine in clay, but typically we don’t plant as deep in the clay, and we tend to mulch over them to give that additional depth. Becky’s garden here, her 8-acre teaching garden, is on heavy gray-mottled clay with a high water table. When we dig holes to plant the bulbs in that, bulbs are wet in the summertime when they want to be dry. When they’re dormant, they like sleeping in a dry bed. So we’ve amended with compost on top, and we plant on top of the compost, and cover with mulch or more compost. It actually makes planting a lot easier, and everything grows well with compost.
We no longer use any chemicals at all; we only do compost, compost tea and volcanic minerals.
Q. How late can I plant?
A. Spring-flowering bulbs make their roots when soil temperatures are between 50 and 60 degrees at the 6-inch level. As the soil cools, the time of rooting is longer. But as long as they initiate their roots—they start their roots—it’s crazy but the cell walls become elastic. It’s almost as if they have antifreeze in them. That’s why normally they don’t freeze in the ground.
As long as the bulbs can make their roots—up where you are in Zone 5, probably you can plant into early December. You want to do it before the ground freezes.
Q. No pick-axes, right? [Laughter.]
A. No, but we’ve done that. The bulbs can freeze if they have not made their roots.
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(Planting-machine photo from NYBG, by Ivo M. Vermeulen; other photos also from NYBG website.)