For gardeners new to spring bulbs, daffodils (Narcissus spp.) are a bright gift. Hardy between U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zones 3 through 10, depending on species, daffodils are less appetizing to winter grazing rodents -- and more reliable perennials -- than many other spring bulbs. They come in a variety of forms and coloration. A well-chosen collection of early-, mid- and late-season varieties will brighten your garden throughout the spring.

Mystery of the Bulb

Daffodil bulbs, like other tunicate bulbs, wear a protective layer of dried skin, or tunic, that helps insulate and keep bulbs moist. The thick layers underneath the tunic anchor this year's plant but also contain the embryo of a succeeding plant, flower and all, and enough nutritious material to keep it healthy until it is time for it to bloom, hopefully next spring. The bulb protects the growing flower from heat, drought and freezing weather.

The bulb never stops growing. It adds layers and processes and stores nutrients year-round. This prepares its hardy little occupant for the vicissitudes of unpredictable spring weather. It might even pop up through the last melting snow if conditions are right.

The Right Conditions

Every daffodil has its own rhythm to follow. Growth responds to daylight and soil temperature. Daffodils come to life when soil temperatures range from 50 to 60 degrees Fahrenheit and as the sun rises and days lengthen. Each year brings a slightly different progression, so bloom times may vary by days or weeks from one year to another.

  • Early varieties such as February Gold (Narcissus 'February Gold,' USDA zones 4 to 8) and Ice Follies (Narcissus 'Ice Follies,' USDA zones 3 to 8) bloom, as their names suggest, as winter fades into very early spring. Tete-a-Tete (Narcissus 'Tete-a-Tete,' USDA zones 4 to 8) may bloom as early as February in warmer southern zones, but wait until March further north.
  • Mid-season begins in March in southern zones, but in cooler zones Jack Snipe (Narcissus 'Jack Snipe,' USDA zones 4 to 8), Trevithian (Narcissus 'Trevithian,' USDA zones 5 to 10) and many of the big mid-season trumpet "daffs" bloom throughout April.
  • Late varieties such as Salome (Narcissus 'Salome,' USDA zones 3 to 9) may bloom as late as mid-May in the north.

About Chilling

Many daffodils depend on winter chilling to keep their bloom time on track. They typically require temperatures between 35 and 48 degrees Fahrenheit for 12 to 18 weeks depending on variety -- not a problem for bulbs planted in fall in northern zones. Gardeners in USDA zone 8 and further south dig and dry bulbs with long chilling requirements after foliage dies down in summer and keep them in cool storage for three to four months before replanting. Gardeners in warmer zones can plant native daffodils such as tazetta daffodils (Narcissus 'Minnow,' USDA zones 5 through 9) that do not require lengthy chilling.

The Prolific Perennial

Daffodils are reliably perennial and will produce daughter bulbs along their bases. Separate these bulbs every two or three years after their foliage has died down in early summer. Just lay bulbs out in cool shade to dry. Pull off the daughter bulbs and plant them in sunny, well-drained soil come fall.