Sunday, April 27, 2008


What’s blooming in the area: Apples, fence row cherries, tulips, mossy phlox, tansy mustard, western stickseed, dandelions, and cheat grass. Bradford pears and other flowering trees have peaked while some forsythia flowers survive. Cottonwoods are beginning to leaf out. People continue to burn off last years dead matter. The local hardware stores have received their first bedding plants.

In my yard: Siberian pea tree, tart and sand cherries, daffodils, grape hyacinth, yellow alyssum and Mount Atlas daisy; first buds on iris; lilac ready to bloom; first leaves on tamarix, weiglia, privet, and snowball. Sidalcea, speedwell, purple coneflower and Maximilian sunflowers have emerged.

Inside: Aptenia, kalanchoë, zonal geranium.

Animal sightings: Fewer bee hives are visible down the road where men have been running heavy equipment. Several times, I’ve chased off a pair of pigeons trying to roost on the back porch rafters.

Weather: High winds, with some morning temperatures below freezing. Last snow April 4, but the last significant moisture was March 5. The ditches are running, and people are flooding their fields with water pumped from the aquifer. 14:29 hours of daylight today.

Weekly update: Daffodils are the one spring bulb that naturalizes here, partly because the soil and climate are similar to its native Spain, and partly because it's adapted to protect itself from external threats.

One couple put in a row against their chain-link fence in the fall of 1998 that bloomed heavily for several years, then produced fewer flowers when conditions did not promote the development of flowers. In those years, the bulbs continued to reproduce, and this year there were scattered yellow flowers on expanded clumps.

Closer to the village, a woman planted a large quantity in 2000 under her grapevines. They have had more flowers on taller stems, probably because she had done more to improve her soil and may have purchased higher quality stock. Two years ago she added more bulbs, this time ones with white flowers, and they too have been heavy bloomers.

My experience is closer to the first. I planted 100 mixed white varieties along the west side of the garage in 2003 that bloomed heavily the next spring. Then, with the dry years, the variety decreased, the stalks and narrow leaves grew shorter, and fewer flowers appeared. Last year, almost nothing bloomed, despite more leaves. So far this year, both double and single trumpets with yellow cups have appeared.

Climate is critical here even though the Dutch have been bred bulbs for varied conditions. My land is more exposed and farther away from the river than my neighbors, and my plants never come into bloom until after theirs have passed. This year my flowers appeared two weeks later than usual.

The winds have been especially brutal this spring, but Shelley Etnier and Steven Vogel have suggested Narcissus pseudonarissus stems are able to twist so the flowers that reach out sideways can lesson the impact by as much as 30% by turning with the wind. Unlike the peach, the petals have stayed in place; unlike the roses, the stems haven’t dehydrated.

Others who’ve planted these bulbous members of the amaryllis family have been less successful, probably because their growing conditions aren’t harsh enough. Daffodils need to be cold in winter. Two people whose bulbs disappeared after several years planted them in protected raised beds while my two successful neighbors planted theirs near the road.

They may have used raised beds to protect the plants from gophers, but daffodils are one bulb that has developed its own tools for defending itself. The dry, outer layers contain needle-like grooved crystals of calcium oxaltate which injure whatever that touches them. Hopefully, that discourages gophers with the first nibble.

The bulbs also contain masonin and homolycorin, which enter the cuts made by the raphide crystals to trigger an allergic response, and lycorine, which can cause vomiting, diarrhea, and convulsions by inhibiting the last step in ascorbic acid biosynthesis. Unfortunately, those toxins don’t work until they’re ingested, which means a bulb may be sacrificed to punish an offending rodent.

Daffodils do more than fail for those who try to domesticate them. They release the same raphide crystals to produce rashes when people harvest bulbs for growers or when they cut the stems. Then, the stems continue to ooze auxims that kill other flowers in the vase. The most popular varieties, like King Alfred and Carlton, are the worst.

If daffodils grow here, it’s on their own terms, and like many of my neighbors, they just want to be left alone.

Etnier, Shelley A. and Steven Vogel. "Reorientation of Daffodil (Narcissus: Amaryllidaceae) Flowers in Wind: Drag Reduction and Torsional Flexibility," American Journal of Botany 87:29-32:2000.

Hanks, Gordon R. Narcissus and Daffodil, 2002.

Photograph: Daffodils in the wind, 26 April 2008; Silver King artemisia between the clumps and winterfat in the background.

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