I moved home a few years back – from the rigors of Zone 4b to the frost-free territory of Zone 10a, along the Mediterranean. I gardened and taught for almost 30 years in Ottawa, Canada, the tulip capital of North America, and spring bulbs became very close to my heart. So I shouldn’t have been surprised when the joy of being able to suddenly grow citrus, bougainvillea, camellia, and even orchids outdoors was tempered by the loss of those glorious, broad brush-strokes of vibrant color that only spring bulbs can deliver. I am sure this is a frustration shared by lots of gardeners in warm, Mediterranean climates, like California and much of Australia, as well the more humid US south. Of course, there are many exciting bulbs that grow well in Mediterranean climates, but I was looking for a touch of nostalgia, and for blooms in winter and early spring – so the classics it was going to be.
Gardeners everywhere always want to push the boundaries and test the limits, and I am no exception. I was an old-hand at seeing just how much cold a plant could really take, but now the push was in the opposite direction – what classic bulbs could I get to bloom without a period of winter chill? I remembered once visiting the botanic garden in Rome and seeing daffodils in bloom in December, so I knew it was possible, and that truly-classic spring bulb seemed a good place to start.
Daffodils of many species grow wild across Europe, especially in the south, and in Spain. Most garden varieties began with the species Narcissus pseudonarcissus, your basic ‘daffodil’ with a single yellow flower on a tall stem. Other species have been used to create the vast range of varieties available, but all these plants have one thing in common – they need a period of cold during winter. In warmer zones, like my new home, that is a problem, since winters are warm and even a light frost is almost never felt. That cold period for most varieties is 14 to 18 weeks below 48oF (9oC), and in warm climates, four months that cold is simply not going to happen.
There is a daffodil that doesn’t need cold that is familiar to many gardeners – the Paperwhite – a novelty often grown indoors by simply planting the bulbs in gravel in a bowl with water in the bottom. This sounded promising, and this plant, Narcissus papyraceus, turns out to be one of a small group of wild daffodil species that grow in the most southern parts of Europe, across the sea in North Africa, and through the Middle East. I figured I was on to something here, and sure enough, daffodils in that group, especially Narcissus tazetta, grow happily with only the briefest of chilling, or none at all. These plants are placed in Division 8, Tazetta, (shown below) of the widely-used Royal Horticultural Society classification of daffodil cultivars.
I did some catalogue searching, and found several varieties of Tazetta available, all of them with clusters of flowers, instead of the single flower of most other daffodils. My garden is small and heavily shaded with broad-leaf evergreens, so I decided to use clay pots, although all the bulbs I planted would do well in the ground and should persist for years. I simply added about 20% garden soil to regular potting soil, and planted the bulbs almost touching each other, in large pots. You only need to plant the bottom half, but I prefer to cover most of the bulb, just leaving the necks exposed, for greater stability outdoors. I planted in late September, as soon as they arrived, and watered the pots well. They sat in a shady place until early in January, when the foliage was starting to elongate a little. I moved them into a spot with a few hours of direct sun and waited to see what happened. Soon flower stems began to emerge, and after a few weeks I had blooms! It was that easy, and with the different varieties I had there was something in flower for almost three months – a big return for a small investment.
Here are some Tazetta varieties that should be easy to find from larger bulb sellers, although you may not find them in your local garden center. I have so far only grown some of them, so I can only personally vouch for the ones I grew, but there is no reason to expect different performance from the others.
‘Avalanche’ –(shown in the lead image) this is an heirloom variety dating back to 1906, and it’s also called Seventeen Sisters, which is a good description of it. The flower heads on 18” stalks contain up to 20 small flowers, with a yellow cup and white corona. They open progressively, starting at the top, and create a cascade of scented flowers that is very attractive indeed, and far superior overall to the more common, and similar looking, ‘Geranium’. For me, these began blooming in late January, and continued until early March – about 6 weeks of blooming, perhaps helped by the consistent cold of an unusually cold winter. That is, it actually got near zero a couple of nights. They probably would have faded faster in more normal temperatures. I thought this was a terrific plant and recommend it wholeheartedly.
‘Falconet’ – I haven’t grown this one, but it should be available for US gardeners, since it was created by Grant Mitsch, an Oregon breeder who produced many daffodil varieties last century. With an orange cup surrounded by a golden-yellow corona it is the nearest to a solid yellow in the Tazetta class but on much shorter stems, just 12” to 14” tall. I will definitely be giving it a try if I can find it. ‘Golden Dawn’ looks similar, but on a taller flower stem. These varieties are later flowering than ‘Avalanche’.
‘Minnow’ –(shown below) this variety is well-known in cooler climates too, but it will thrive in zones 8 to 10. It has a light-yellow cup with a white corona and growing only 8” tall it would be perfect for the front of a border, or in a window box.
‘Silver Chimes’ – another old variety from 1914, this is on my list to grow in the coming winter, if I can track some down. The soft, lemon yellow cup and the more incurved corona look delicious, but it only has about 8 flowers per stalk, of a similar height to ‘Avalanche’, but later blooming.
Another group that caught my attention is the Jonquil daffodils (Division 7). These are bred from another species that grows in North Africa, Narcissus jonquilla, and they don’t do well in damp, cooler areas. They do however thrive with warmer, drier weather, so they are good choices for Mediterranean climates. I decided to try one of those, as I was looking for a pure yellow flower. I grew ‘Quail’, (shown below) which bloomed later, in March, but with no problems at all. I loved this variety, which had lots of medium-sized blooms in clusters of 5, again on tall stems. It gave that solid splash of yellow that really catches the eye. My success with this one tempts me to try some others, especially since there are gorgeous apricot and pink-toned daffodils in this group, like ‘Kedron’, ‘Prosecco’ and ‘Sweet Smiles’. There are lots of attractive varieties among the jonquils, and they should all grow well in warm regions.
Although very widely grown, and sold forced in pots even in grocery stores, I have a soft spot for 'Tête-à-tête', so I just ordered some to see how they would do. They grew a lot taller than the forced ones you see, and bloomed later, but they were lovely, and extended my daffodil season nicely. This wildly popular variety – the Dutch alone force 17 million pots of it – was bred from the tiny Narcissus cyclamineus, by Alex Gray, a prolific professional British breeder, in the 1940s. It is widely grown outdoors in Texas, and it certainly performed well for me without any significant chilling.
Although my trials began with a longing for tulips, that turned out to be much more of a challenge. The parents of the multitude of tulip varieties all come from species that look on the map to be in warm areas, like Turkey and the Middle East. In reality they grow in high, mountainous regions, so they do need lots of winter cold to do well.
All was not entirely lost, though, as I did discover one variety that is probably already well-known to southern growers in the US. It seems to be the only tulip that doesn’t need a long, deep winter chill.
This is Tulip clusiana, the Lady Tulip (shown below), a wild species often available in a selected form called ‘Lady Jane’. DNA research indicates that this plant is genetically isolated from all other tulips, so its no surprise that it uniquely doesn’t need a cold period. It grows wild all the way from Afghanistan to the Himalayas, and it has been found growing as a garden escape in the wild in Italy and southern France too.
This tulip did indeed grow easily without chilling, and the flowers were surprisingly large for a wild tulip. The flower is tall and narrow when new, colored white with pink outer petals. For me they were very floppy, and the flowers quickly opened out flat, but I only have partial sun, so in full sun they should be a lot more attractive. There are other forms too, and ‘Tubergen’s Gem’ (shown below) looks beautiful. It has canary-yellow petals, with a reddish-purple color on the outside set. The bulbs are very small, so in a pot you can pack lots in, for a bolder display.
I also tried Allium ‘Purple Sensation’ (shown below), because I had read somewhere that they didn’t need chilling, and I love this plant so much. That advice proved incorrect, as they sent up some leaves, but then stalled and eventually withered away without even showing a flower spike. Oh well.
This year I am planning to try Spanish Bluebells (shown below), Hyacinthoides hispanica, which apparently don’t need chilling. That makes sense, given their origin in southern Spain and Portugal. They also tolerate some shade, which could be useful in my shady garden. I will also be trying the Giant Squill, Scilla peruviana, which is frost-tender, so certainly won’t need chilling. It has exciting-looking dome-shaped heads of blue flowers on a three-foot stem, and it also comes in white. It needs a sandy soil to do well, but the only problem in pots is the enormous bulb, 8 inches or more across. Maybe I will use a wooden wine box instead!
I was pleased with my first foray into warm-climate spring bulbs, and if I had a sunnier garden I would be planting lots more Tazetta and Jonquilla daffodils and experimenting more widely. It’s all too easy if you live outside the ‘usual’ areas for plants, to just assume they won’t grow for you, but if you are prepared to explore a little, it’s amazing what you can come up with.
All images courtesy of PlantFiles