Painting with Daffodils

A remarkable floral display occurs each spring high in the mountains of Southern California. More than five acres of mountain landscape are host to one million daffodils, accented by assorted other bulbs such as fritillarias, hyacinths, muscari, and tulips. Some of the flowers are in drifts that spill down the steep slopes; others stand in large beds. All were planted, one at a time, by one woman -- Gene Bauer. She started 38 years ago, inspired by a few daffodils in a neighbor's garden. Bauer planted 48 daffodils in the fall of 1958. Needless to say, they thrived. Since then she's planted more daffodils each fall, but in the thousands. Some years, Bauer plants as few as 8,000 bulbs. In the fall of 1993, she planted 35,000. It's a kind of gardening zeal that makes the spring bulb ambitions of most of us seem rather paltry.

Every slope cleared, every trail carved out of the hillside, every bulb planted -- all the hard work -- has been done by Gene and her husband, Dale, but mostly by Gene. Or as she puts it, "The work is done by two hands, two feet and a body minus a brain."

Bauer has learned how to plant fast: "I place bulbs over the area about six inches apart. I sit, dig a hole, drop in a bulb, and use the soil from the next hole to fill the previous hole."

Why daffodils? "First of all because they are beautiful and sturdy. But also because the bulbs are toxic. Gophers, squirrels and all the other critters that feast on tulips and other bulbs leave daffodils alone," says Bauer.

Running Springs, California, sits at a 5,500-foot elevation, well above most of the smog in the Los Angeles basin. Ecologically, it's a transition zone between chaparral and yellow pine forest. More importantly, it has a distinct cold season, which suits the daffodils just fine. Over the hilly five acres grow native black oak, incense cedar, white fir and Coulter, knobcone, sugar and ponderosa pines. The soil is acidic. For fall color, Bauer has planted sugar maples and scarlet oaks among the native trees.

'Jetfire'

Gene's Favorite Daffodils

Gene Bauer didn't start out as a daffodil expert, but over the years she couldn't help making observations -- such as the time all 1,000 of one variety failed to bloom. (It was double-flowered 'Texas'; the buds "blasted," meaning they turned brown and failed to open.) While she grows more than 500 different varieties of daffodils, 15 varieties account for the majority of those you see. Although she doesn't have one favorite, she does count the following nine as star naturalizers in her garden. (To help you locate the same or similar varieties, I've included the name of the daffodil type.)

'Daydream'. This is a tall (14 to 16 inches) translucent yellow daffodil that matures to white. A "large-cupped" type, it produces one flower per stem. This strong garden plant blooms midseason to late season.

'Jenny'. Creamy yellow-white at first, this daffodil matures to pure white and grows 10 to 12 inches tall. A cyclamineus with the typical flared-back petals, it is a good naturalizer. Bloom is early to midseason.

'Jetfire'. Like 'Jenny', this daffodil is about two inches taller and is notable for its cups, which combine red-orange with yellow. It often produces more than one flower per bulb. Bloom comes early to midseason.

'Peeping Tom'. This daffodil produces a yellow flower with an extremely long trumpet. It's excellent for forcing in pots as well as naturalizing. It grows 12 to 14 inches tall and blooms early to midseason.

'Pink Charm'. This is a tall, sturdy daffodil with white petals accented by a wide orange cup banded in dark orange-pink at its edge. A vigorous plant, it often produces two flowers per stem. This large-cupped ty

Another large-cupped daffodil, 'Salome' is ivory white with a light yellow, almost pink cup. This excellent naturalizer wins its share of awards at daffodil shows. It grows 16 to 18 inches tall and b late midseason.

'Tahiti'. A "double" type, 'Tahiti' doesn't have the distinct central cup or trumpet. These roselike flowers are mostly sulfur yellow, but the petals in the center are nearly red. It grows 12 to 14 inches tall and produces one extremely large flower per stem. It blooms in late midseason.

'Thalia'. This daffodil was first offered for sale 80 years ago, making it a bonafide heirloom. Why has it been so popular over the years? It is a superb garden perennial that grows 12 to 14 inches tall, it's snow white and it's fragrant. 'Thalia' belongs to the triandrus category, which typically produce two or three pendulous flowers per stem. Bloom comes late midseason.

'Unique'. A double like 'Tahiti', this daffodil's flower is very heavy, so the stems are strong. The sepals (the petallike outer parts of the flower) are ivory white, and the petals are golden yellow. It grows 16 to 18 inches tall and blooms in late midseason.

Daffodils in spring just weeks before bloom.

Buying and Planting Tips

Buy bulbs from a reputable dealer, and always keep notes so you know the names of varieties purchased and where you planted them. This way, if you particu more of next time.

Avoid "mixtures" or economy daffodils. Mixes create a hodge-podge look of varying heights, shapes and blooming periods. In nature, a clump or grouping of one type of plant will gradually mix with another, but they won't be thoroughly mixed.

Take cues from the contours of your land and the existing trees. Try to tie these elements together with the bulbs. Sometimes a tree will be the focal point.

An artist by training, Bauer paints with daffodils, flowers and leaves alike. She "carpets" areas with sweeps of yellow, white and orange blossoms. Some daffodil leaves are blue-green, others yellow-green. When blossoms of early bloomers wither, she removes them by hand, leaving areas of green leaves between the remaining areas of color.

In Bauer's garden, south- or west-facing slopes are best, partly because they warm sooner in spring, but also because the daffodil flowers will turn to face the sun. On a north- or east-facing slope, the stems often twist. She prefers large-cupped types for their proportions and because "they do better."

Certainly don't plant in rows, but also don't just "throw bulbs and plant where they fall" as some garden manuals recommend. Plant individual varieties in clumps.

Maintenance?

This is the beauty of it: Bauer's daffodils are maintenance-free. None of them ever receive additional water or fertilizer. None are ever dug or divided (unless they're being disposed of).

When and Where to Visit

Anyone can visit during peak bloom time, early March to early April. The garden is located below Running Springs, California, in the San Bernardino Mountains. From the city of Highland (about 60 miles east of downtown Los Angeles), take Highway 330 toward Running Springs. Drive 14 miles into the mountains to the intersection of Live Oak Dr. and Fredalba. Turn right on Fredalba and proceed one mile. Park in the church parking lot. From there, signs will direct you. Although trails and steps follow the undulating hillsides, and benches are available at peak viewing and resting points, access is difficult for wheelchairs and the walking impaired.

'Jetfire' by The International Flower Bulb Center; daffodil sprouts by Suzanne DeJohn/National Gardening Association