Nothing spoils the joy of an emerging Tulip display so much as the fag-end of a Narcissus display. So this morning I’ve deadheaded several hundred of the N. ‘February Gold’ which have been delighting patients and other visitors to the garden since 30th January.
I know it was the 30th January because I always take a photo of the first ones to appear. The prize usually goes to a clump which sits in the lee of the hedge but facing south-west up a path towards the ‘top gate’. A combination of factors, I believe, give them a head-start: they’re sheltered from cold winds by the hedge, but the leafless winter hedge doesn’t cast much shade, and they get the best of the low sun down the pathway through the afternoon when it’s at its warmest. It may be something else, but those are my best guesses. However, this year they were pipped at the post by a few bulbs which I’d put in one of the planters: even more sheltered, tucked against the wall of the building, and facing south.
In any event, the ‘February Gold’ have put on a fantastic display, bearing up through the gales and rain of Storms Ciara and Dennis (remember them?), and only starting to fade about 10 days ago. There time had come, and they’re now safe to concentrate on fattening up their bulbs in preparation for next spring.
The same treatment will be meted out to Narcissus ‘Thalia’ in due course, although this will be harder as the herbaceous growth will continue to make access to the borders increasingly awkward.
There is more than ‘just’ aesthetics behind deadheading Narcissi (though their browning flowers are a very sorry sight). You want the plant to put all its energy into next year’s flowers, for which it needs its green foliage but not the spent flower head. The plant’s genes, of course, want it to reproduce and so it will try to set seed – the seed-head developing (in Narcissi) as a swelling behind the flower. This is what you need to take off – but nothing more. The leaves must be left, as they have plenty of photosynthesising to do in the next few weeks before they yellow and die back – that’s where the bulb gets its food from.
There’s a bit of controversy about whether or not the whole flower stalk should be removed, or just the flower head. Admittedly, deadheading and leaving the decapitated stem is usually best avoided, as the headless stems of many plants look ugly and/or silly. However, Narcissus flower stems are – from anything more than a yard away – indistinguishable from the leaves. Furthermore, there is evidence that the stem can photosynthesise more effectively (maybe up to 4 times more effectively) than the leaves, so in terms of feeding the bulbs it makes sense to leave it.
I’ve never understood the ‘traditional’ practice of bending over the foliage of Narcissi and tying it in an odd little bundle. I suppose it was meant to keep it out of sight without wholesale removal, but those little trussed-up parcels of dying leaves look obtrusive and unnatural, drawing more attention to themselves than if left alone, to my mind. I fear that, like pot washing and several other ‘traditional’ winter jobs, it was a task invented by 19th century Head Gardeners to keep their underlings occupied and out of mischief.