In the Garden:
Most heirloom daffodils, such as these "sweeties" (Narcissus jonquilla), are fragrant as well as beautiful.
With Heirlooms, Have Your Daffodils and Smell Them, Too
Last March, I wondered if my friend Dennis Chastain was lightheaded with spring euphoria when he invited me to smell the daffodils at his family homeplace near Table Rock State Park. A few of my daffs, especially 'Ice Follies' (introduced in 1953) give the house a pleasantly clean smell when brought inside, but I never detect a perfume-like fragrance in the garden.
A short drive up the mountain and one whiff later, however, and I was convinced. Dennis has the sweetest-smelling daffodils you can possibly imagine. Collected from forgotten home sites (deep within the forest where they survive but do not thrive) and areas of imminent development, his bulbs are fragrant heirlooms, rather than modern cultivars selected for flashy blooms.
A self-sufficient outdoorsman, fabled hunter and tracker, and freelance writer for SC Wildlife and other publications, Dennis grows a variety of vegetables and fruits, but is more at home in camouflage than overalls. He's certainly not your typical flower gardener.
That said, Dennis has a special place in his heart for daffodils and other heritage plants of the southern Appalachian Mountains. To him, they're not just beautiful flowers, they're also botanical artifacts.
Early settlers to our region lived a hardscrabble life and yet they protected and preserved these flower bulbs as they moved west. Even the Cherokee Indians, Dennis told me, carried daffodil bulbs with them on the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma.
Like Dennis, I believe there is value in growing something my great-grandmother or great-great-grandmother might have loved. Like preserving a historic building or restoring an antique car, it's important to save our ties to the past.
Throughout spring and into May, I visited the Chastain garden again and again, photographing and collecting information on the daffodils as they came into bloom. While I've been able to identify a handful of bulbs, many more remain a mystery.
One of my favorites, Narcissus jonquilla, called the "early Louisiana jonquil" or "sweeties," looks like a flower made for fairies. At 8 to 10 inches tall, it displays nickel-sized blooms of rounded petals surrounding a tiny cup. Known since 1612, it has narrow onion-like foliage, and the flower is among the most fragrant you will find in any garden.
Sweeties are native to Portugal and Spain, but are now naturalized in many areas of Europe and the United States. As Dennis has discovered, they spread by seed as well as by asexual reproduction.
Two other early daffodils collected by Dennis include the "pheasant's eye" (Narcissus poeticus recurvus) documented as early as 1600, and "campernelle" (Narcissus x odorus) from 1601. Both of these plants now have a home on the sunny bank where he nurtures ornamental heirlooms.
Many of the bulbs Dennis has rescued are spreading, producing thick clumps of foliage, and tens, even hundreds, of blooms each spring.
"That's what this little collection of daffodils is all about -- to protect and preserve," Dennis said. "My plan was to bring them home, discover what they are, let them grow here, and then pass them along."
The best way to save antique daffodils is for more gardeners to grow them. They're not hard to cultivate. Like modern types, they require good drainage and plenty of sun.
Over the next weeks, as the warm season unfolds, take time to visit historic gardens and get to know the beauty and fragrance of heirloom daffodils. Then, when the planting season for spring bulbs rolls around again in fall, make an extra effort to seek out antique varieties for your home garden. They will not only add charm to the landscape, but also make a sweet connection to days gone by.
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