Jonquils (Narcissus)

Daffodils, Jonquils, Narcissus, Paper White, Paperwhites, Tazettas

Narcissus flowers are beautiful, low maintenance plants. We’ve shared our best daffodil care tips here and will provide a full growing guide.

I. Appearance and Characteristics 

Narcissus is a genus of predominantly spring flowering perennial plants of the amaryllis family, Amaryllidaceae. Various common names including daffodil, narcissus and jonquil, are used to describe all or some members of the genus. Narcissus has conspicuous flowers with six petal-like tepals surmounted by a cup- or trumpet-shaped corona. The flowers are generally white and yellow (also orange or pink in garden varieties), with either uniform or contrasting coloured tepals and corona.

Narcissi were well known in ancient civilisation, both medicinally and botanically, but were formally described by Linnaeus in his Species Plantarum (1753). The genus is generally considered to have about ten sections with approximately 36 species. The number of species has varied, depending on how they are classified, due to similarity between species and hybridisation. The genus arose some time in the Late Oligocene to Early Miocene epochs, in the Iberian peninsula and adjacent areas of southwest Europe. 

The exact origin of the name Narcissus is unknown, but it is often linked to a Greek word (ancient Greek ναρκῶ narkō, “to make numb”) and the myth of the youth of that name who fell in love with his own reflection. The English word “daffodil” appears to be derived from “asphodel”, with which it was commonly compared.

The species are native to meadows and woods in southern Europe and North Africa with a centre of diversity in the Western Mediterranean, particularly the Iberian peninsula. Both wild and cultivated plants have naturalised widely, and were introduced into the Far East prior to the tenth century.

Narcissus is a genus of perennial herbaceous bulbiferous geophytes, which die back after flowering to an underground storage bulb. They regrow in the following year from brown-skinned ovoid bulbs with pronounced necks, and reach heights of 5–80 centimeters (2.0–31.5 in) depending on the species. Dwarf species such as N. asturiensis have a maximum height of 5–8 centimeters (2.0–3.1 in), while Narcissus tazetta may grow as tall as 80 centimeters (31 in).

The plants are scapose, having a single central leafless hollow flower stem (scape). Several green or blue-green, narrow, strap-shaped leaves arise from the bulb. The plant stem usually bears a solitary flower, but occasionally a cluster of flowers (umbel). The flowers, which are usually conspicuous and white or yellow, sometimes both or rarely green, consist of a perianth of three parts. Closest to the stem (proximal) is a floral tube above the ovary, then an outer ring composed of six tepals (undifferentiated sepals and petals), and a central disc to conical shaped corona. The flowers may hang down (pendant), or be erect. There are six pollen bearing stamens surrounding a central style. The ovary is inferior (below the floral parts) consisting of three chambers (trilocular). The fruit consists of a dry capsule that splits (dehisces) releasing numerous black seeds.

The bulb lies dormant after the leaves and flower stem die back and has contractile roots that pull it down further into the soil. The flower stem and leaves form in the bulb, to emerge the following season. Most species are dormant from summer to late winter, flowering in the spring, though a few species are autumn flowering.

All Narcissus species contain the alkaloid poison lycorine, mostly in the bulb but also in the leaves. The toxic effects of ingesting Narcissus products for both humans and animals (such as cattle, goats, pigs, and cats) have long been recognised and they have been used in suicide attempts. Ingestion of N. pseudonarcissus or N. jonquilla is followed by salivation, acute abdominal pains, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, then neurological and cardiac events, including trembling, convulsions, and paralysis. Death may result if large quantities are consumed.

II. How to Grow and Care

Sunlight

For established plants, place them in bright light as on an east or south windowsill. Bulbs that have not sprouted should be kept away from direct sunlight until new growth emerges and the plants are established.

Watering

Watering your daffodils should be easy. But to many, it seems a bit confusing. Let’s make it super-simple!

When your narcissus bulbs are first planted, water deeply. This ensures that the soil around the bulbs is moist, but not soggy. Keep it moist.

As your plants begin to produce leaves and buds, increase your watering frequency. At that point, you should be providing about an inch per week. This should be ample moisture for your growing plants.

Only water your narcissus flowers in the morning, as this allows the plants to drink their fill early in the day. The added moisture they’re holding will fill the cell walls of the plant. This adds an extra layer of protection against sudden freezing conditions. Humidity conditions for these plants are variable, and they tolerate a range of conditions.

Soil

For narcissus flowers, drainage is key. Excess water lingering around your bulbs may promote rot conditions.

To avoid this, prepare your beds by loosening the soil to at least 12″ deep. Work in a quality compost, and if you wish you can add other soil looseners. A well-draining potting soil blend will also work.

Your soil should be able to hold moisture but drain off any excess quickly. Both clay-like or sandy soils will work, but it’s easiest to have looser soil.

The range for soil pH should be between 6.0 and 7.0. Narcissus likes a slightly more acidic soil. If your soil tends towards alkaline, you may need to amend with soil sulfur or another acidic agent. Be sure to perform a soil test before you amend it.

Fertilizing

During the growing period, use weak liquid fertilizer weekly. Young plants shouldn’t require fertilizer as they will draw all their nutrition from the bulb itself.

Pruning

As a general rule, there’s very little in-season pruning required for narcissus flowers. You can opt to deadhead spent flowers if you want, but leave the stem intact.

Try to avoid cutting back your plants until after they’ve turned yellow and died back. Daffodils use their leaves to store nutrients to survive during winter dormancy. Until they’ve yellowed, the plant hasn’t extracted all of the nutrients and stored them in the bulb.

Once the plant has yellowed, you can remove all the dead foliage at ground level. Use sterile pruning shears for this purpose as it makes a clean cut. Don’t cut beneath the soil level.

Some people choose to use a lawn mower to shear off end-of-season foliage, and that can work well too. If you’ve got mulch around the plants, set the mower at no lower than 2″ above the ground to prevent hitting the mulch. I find it easier to rake the mulch away if I choose to mow the dead foliage.

Propagation

Daffodil propagation can be handled two ways: by seed, or bulb division.

When daffodils flower, fertilized flowers will produce seeds. It can take up to five years for those seeds to start to flower once planted. Needless to say, this can be a very long and slow process.

Bulb division is much more commonplace. Young bulbs produce clones of their parent plant, so it’s also much more reliable than seed. Cross-pollination of seeds can create interesting hybrids, though!

Dividing daffodils can happen every 3-5 years, but isn’t absolutely necessary. Of the bulbing plants, narcissus flowers tend to be more accepting of crowded spaces. If you’re looking to expand your garden, it’s a great way to get new plants for free!

You can divide bulbs at any time that they’re not actively flowering. I recommend doing it while the foliage is still attached as it’s easier to locate the bulb bases. The foliage can be vibrant and green or can already have yellowed.

Begin by loosening the soil around your daffodils with a shovel. Be careful not to accidentally cut into the bulbs or their root systems. You’ll need to go at least 12″ below the soil’s surface.

Once the soil is loose around the plant, slide the shovel blade beneath the bulbs. Using caution, pry the mass loose, soil and all. You can then dust excess soil off to reveal the bulbs.

Those which have already sent up foliage should be easy to separate and come right apart. Young immature bulbs without foliage should be left attached to the parent plant.

Smaller bulbs may take a few years before they begin to flower. These will still produce foliage and can be quite beautiful. You can store these in mesh bags or dry peat moss without their tops until the fall. Check them regularly to make sure they aren’t rotting or withering. They can be replanted immediately as well.

Larger bulbs are much the same, but have a higher likelihood of flowering in the spring than smaller ones. Either store these in dry peat moss or mesh bags, or replant them immediately.

Be sure to inspect the original parent bulb. If it’s withered or shows signs of damage or rot, don’t replant it. If it looks like it’s in good condition, go ahead and replant it, and it’ll go back to reproducing.

Repotting

Usually unnecessary, as the most common indoor Narcissus (Paperwhite) are sold in decorative pots or as planting kits designed to be discarded after the 3-week bloom is over. If you do want to save the bulbs, treat them like other bulbs: after the bloom is over and the plant has died back, dig up the bulb, dry and clean it, and store it in a paper bag or container in a cool, dark place until the following spring.

Pests and Diseases

Common Pests 

Green peach aphids, foxglove aphids, and a few other varieties are known to feed on daffodils. While the feeding won’t kill the plant, aphids often spread diseases. An insecticidal soap is a great option for eliminating aphids.

Bulb mites are trickier. There are no good treatment options for these little annoyances. Adults lay eggs in the soil, and when the larvae hatch, they eat into the bulbs. This causes damage that can allow fungal diseases to move in. Examine your bulbs before planting, and if any feel soft or yield to light pressure, destroy them. This helps prevent mite spread.

The narcissus bulb fly is another major problem. Like bulb mites, these lay eggs in the soil which hatch into feeding larvae. Adults look like a tiny bumblebee and are easily trapped using yellow sticky trap stakes. Planting your bulbs deeper can help avoid the larval spread.

Mulching around your plants may help prevent both bulb mite and bulb fly infestation. It also helps keep the soil evenly moist, so it’s a great option.

Stem nematodes can cause discoloration of the leaves and lesions on the bulb. Applying beneficial nematodes to the soil can help eradicate these microscopic menaces.

While they’re less common on narcissus flowers, western flower thrips may appear. These typically feed on the leaves and flower petals. A quality insecticidal soap can help reduce their number. Spraying neem oil can prevent their spread.

Finally, there are a couple creeping pests that can make their home in your daffodil foliage. Common snails and garden slugs may not chew on your plants, but they can become a danger to others. Use a bait to wipe them out before they can do damage to the rest of your garden.

Common Diseases 

Most narcissus flowers are immune to the majority of common diseases. However, aphids can spread viral diseases. Mites and flies leave open damaged areas that are susceptible to fungal disease.

Because of this, the first line of protection should always be to eliminate pests on your plants. If you don’t, your plants may become infected.

Basal rot is a prime example. Pest damage can allow pythium, rhizoctonia, or fusarium fungi to colonize the bulb. This will eventually kill the bulb and can spread further through your soil.

Rot damage can also be caused by overwatering. Soggy soil allows fungi to rapidly develop around the plant. If your plants are pest-free and in well-draining soil, rot shouldn’t occur.

There are diseases which directly target narcissus flowers.

The narcissus yellow stripe virus spreads through infected aphids. This virus causes leaves to yellow and wilt, and can cause the bulb to soften and succumb to fungal rots. There is no cure, so prevention is your best defense.

A number of other virii impact narcissus as well. Some of these include the narcissus mosaic virus, narcissus latent virus, and narcissus degeneration virus. It’s estimated nearly 25 different viral strains may exist. There are varying symptoms, including streaked leaves and stems, mottled leaf tips, and leaf tip necrosis.

Like with yellow stripe virus, none of these are treatable and must be prevented. You should destroy infected plants. It’s essential to avoid contagion-spreading pests on your narcissi. Keep those aphids far away.

Botrytis narcissicola, a relative of botrytis cinerea, will attack the bulbs. This is most common when the bulbs are being stored indoors, and is called narcissus smoulder. Once a stored bulb is infected, it should be destroyed. Plants in the ground which are showing early symptoms may be saved with a liquid copper sulfate spray.

III. Uses and Benefits 

Medicinal uses

  • Traditional medicine

Despite the lethal potential of Narcissus alkaloids, they have been used for centuries as traditional medicines for a variety of complaints, including cancer. Plants thought to be N. poeticus and N. tazetta are described in the Bible in the treatment for what is thought to be cancer. In the Classical Greek world Hippocrates (ca. B.C. 460–370) recommended a pessary prepared from narcissus oil for uterine tumors, a practice continued by Pedanius Dioscorides (ca. A.D. 40–90) and Soranus of Ephesus (A.D. 98–138) in the first and second centuries A.D., while the Roman Pliny the Elder (A.D. 23–79), advocated topical use. The bulbs of N. poeticus contain the antineoplastic agent narciclasine. This usage is also found in later Arabian, North African, Central American and Chinese medicine during the Middle Ages. In China N. tazetta var. Chinensis was grown as an ornamental plant but the bulbs were applied topically to tumors in traditional folk medicine. These bulbs contain pretazettine, an active antitumor compound.

Narcissus products have received a variety of other uses. The Roman physician Aulus Cornelius Celsus listed narcissus root in De Medicina among medical herbs, described as emollient, erodent, and “powerful to disperse whatever has collected in any part of the body”. N. tazetta bulbs were used in Turkey as a remedy for abscesses in the belief they were antiphlogistic and analgesic. Other uses include the application to wounds, strains, painful joints, and various local ailments as an ointment called ‘Narcissimum’. Powdered flowers have also been used medically, as an emetic, a decongestant and for the relief of dysentery, in the form of a syrup or infusion. The French used the flowers as an antispasmodic, the Arabs the oil for baldness and also an aphrodisiac. In the eighteenth century the Irish herbal of John K’Eogh recommended pounding the roots in honey for use on burns, bruises, dislocations and freckles, and for drawing out thorns and splinters. N. tazetta bulbs have also been used for contraception, while the flowers have been recommended for hysteria and epilepsy. In the traditional Japanese medicine of kampo, wounds were treated with narcissus root and wheat flour paste; the plant, however, does not appear in the modern kampo herb list.

There is also a long history of the use of Narcissus as a stimulant and to induce trance like states and hallucinations. Sophocles referred to the narcissus as the “Chaplet of the infernal Gods”, a statement frequently wrongly attributed to Socrates (see Antiquity).

  • Biological properties

Extracts of Narcissus have demonstrated a number of potentially useful biological properties including antiviral, prophage induction, antibacterial, antifungal, antimalarial, insecticidal, cytotoxic, antitumor, antimitotic, antiplatelet, hypotensive, emetic, acetylcholinesterase inhibitory, antifertility, antinociceptive, chronotropic, pheromone, plant growth inhibitor, and allelopathic.

  • Therapeutics

Of all the alkaloids, only galantamine has made it to therapeutic use in humans, as the drug galantamine for Alzheimer’s disease. Galantamine is an acetylcholinesterase inhibitor which crosses the blood brain barrier and is active within the central nervous system. Daffodils are grown commercially near Brecon in Powys, Wales, to produce galantamine.

Commercial uses

Throughout history the scent of narcissi has been an important ingredient of perfumes, a quality that comes from essential oils rather than alkaloids. Narcissi are also an important horticultural crop, and source of cut flowers (floriculture).

  • Cut flowers

For cut flowers, bulbs larger than 12 cm in size are preferred. To bloom in December, bulbs are harvested in June to July, dried, stored for four days at 34 °C, two weeks at 30 and two weeks at 17–20 °C and then placed in cold storage for precooling at 9 degrees for about 15–16 weeks. The bulbs are then planted in light compost in crates in a greenhouse for forcing at 13 °C–15 °C and the blooms appear in 19–30 days.

  • Potted flowers

For potted flowers a lower temperature is used for precooling (5 °C for 15 weeks), followed by 16 °C–18 °C in a greenhouse. For later blooming (mid- and late-forcing), bulbs are harvested in July to August and the higher temperatures are omitted, being stored a 17–20 °C after harvesting and placed in cold storage at 9 °C in September for 17–18 (cut flowers) or 14–16 (potted flowers) weeks. 

The bulbs can then be planted in cold frames, and then forced in a greenhouse according to requirements. N. tazetta and its cultivars are an exception to this rule, requiring no cold period. Often harvested in October, bulbs are lifted in May and dried and heated to 30 °C for three weeks, then stored at 25 °C for 12 weeks and planted. Flowering can be delayed by storing at 5 °C–10 °C.

Jonquils (Narcissus) Details

Common name Daffodils, Jonquils, Narcissus, Paper White, Paperwhites, Tazettas
Botanical name Narcissus
Plant type Bulb
Hardiness zone 4a, 4b, 5a, 5b, 6a, 6b, 7a, 7b, 8a, 8b
Growth rate Fast
Height 0 ft. 8 in. - 2 ft. 6 in.
Width 0 ft. 8 in. - 2 ft. 6 in.
Sunlight Full sun (6 or more hours of direct sunlight a day)
Soil condition Clay
Flower color Gold/Yellow
Leaf color Green