Daffodil season lasts about a month, give or take. This is good, because daffodils have a way of mesmerizing gardeners.
“If it was for 12 months, you’d go crazy,” said Karen Cogar, a daffodil fancier whose ornamental and woodland garden in Alexandria, Va., is awash at the moment with choice varieties beyond popular comprehension.
Daffodil season is not just relatively brief, it occurs at one of the most awaited and least predictable periods of the garden year. Early spring in these parts can be wet, windy, freezing or abruptly hot. And that’s just in the morning. This buffeting makes daffodil season entirely unpredictable. When spring is delayed, when March is wet and April is warm but tempered, you get one of those rare daffodil years that are perfect. Early, mid- and late-season varieties overlap and preen and linger. This might be one of those years.
Modern breeders have brought an impressive degree of alchemy to this most regal of spring bulbs. Up close and in juxtaposition, daffodils demonstrate why no one adjective can capture this spring bloom.
The trumpet daffodil is so brassy that I find most varieties of it hard to take seriously. The cyclamineus varieties, smaller with their perianth petals swept back, are rakish. The hoop-skirted bulbocodiums are cheeky. The miniatures are cute, like downy ducklings. The late-appearing poeticus narcissi are, yes, poetic in their crystalline snow-white petals and the perfect scarlet rims of their flattened cups. So much depends upon the red corona.
I favor a class called large cupped daffodil cultivars for their perfection of classic form and proportion. Unlike, say, the ruffled center of a double bloomer, the large cupped varieties capture the pure duality of the flower, the yin of the cup against the yang of the perianth.
The architecture plays to the other great attribute of the daffodil: its color, or colors. My taste has leaned toward red- and pink-cupped varieties, with broad white petals that overlap generously. Perhaps the most common of this type, though still superb, is Fragrant Rose, first introduced in the 1970s. It is sweetly scented, a trait not often associated with daffodils except for the more pungent paper whites, varieties of a type known as tazettas.
While I’m a daffodil dilettante, Cogar is a connoisseur, and her favorite pink-cupped is Birky, which has the whole package, not just form and color but a radiance that comes from thick, glistening petals — substance. It is also large, which has to do with the care of its cultivation. “It looks like it was grown in Oil of Olay,” she said, handing me a cut stem. “It’s just spectacularly smooth, and huge.”
But she doesn’t like just this sort, and as if to prove the point she shows off more than 20 stems in three vases that together typify the whole world of narcissi. Possibly her most outre variety is Mesa Verde, bred in California by Bob Spotts and the first registered green daffodil. It was so novel, rare and coveted by other breeders that it first sold for $150 a bulb. Its price has since plummeted to a mere $75.
When I toured Cogar’s garden last week, many of her orange-cupped varieties were in full, fresh display. Chief among them was Fly Half, which has rich yellow petals and an elegant red-orange cup. The petals are broad and overlap in a very tailored manner. “It’s just an Armani of a flower,” she said.
Another of its ilk, but with even more broad petals, is Terminator, introduced by an Australian breeder, David Jackson, in the 1990s. It has a special place in Cogar’s heart — last year it brought her the gold ribbon at the national show. In the garden, it’s not performing so well this year because of the cold, rainy start, but there are others that catch my eye: Swamp Fox, an orange-cupped variety from the Virginia breeder Bill Pannill; and Altun Ha Gold, with fan-shaped petals and the entire bloom in a deep saturated yellow.
One of my favorite orange-cupped is another of Pannill’s creations, Great Gatsby, big and immaculate in the hands of a good grower: Every few years, show daffodils need to be lifted, divided and replanted the year before display to keep them at their most robust.
Two other of Cogar’s varieties have made my wish list for planting this autumn: Oregon Lights has arrow-shaped white perianth petals with a sherbet orange cup. There is a faint green halo where the cup meets the perianth. The other is Three Oaks, which is, yes, a trumpet daffodil, but not egregiously so. It is white with a lemon yellow cup.
In the woodland, Cogar has spent 28 years clearing scrub, digging stones, forming a shade garden rich with perennials and shrubs. Here she found a latent daffodil, a historic variety named Kansas that was biding its time, waiting for its benefactor to uncover and cherish it so that it could reappear and flourish. It is white with a small cup, fringed orange. The petals are full and thick, unusual for an old variety. Cogar has increased it through lifting, separating the bulb clusters and replanting. “The color is good, the substance is good,” she said. “I really respect the longevity of some of these historics.”