Over at Transatlantic Plantsman, Graham Rice rants about Hideous Daffodils, bemoaning the lack of native daffodil plantings in his native land. Instead, all he sees are the large-flowered hybrids.(I don’t know how he kept himself from quoting Wordsworth’s “I wander’d lonely as a cloud.” Such discipline.) I’m feeling your pain, Graham, but in my case, I’d like to see more species tulips, which, like Narcissus pseudonarcissus, are smaller and blend better with their neighboring plants (though of course, they’re not natives). I have been using these for some years now and, unlike most hybrids, they pop up regularly, delighting with their unusual forms and color patterns, their unobtrusive foliage, and their ability to naturalize. They aren’t wildflowers, but they have that informality.
I know many who have given up on tulips because the plants don’t act like other perennials, coming back bigger and better each season. Hybrid tulips kind of do the opposite: they decline after a year or so, particularly when the conditions are not ideal. Hybrid tulips=annuals in my gardening practice; I plant them in containers and raised beds and compost them without a qualm when they’re done. It’s not for everyone.
My favorite is probably T. acuminata, but for naturalization, the winner has to be T. turkestanica, a multi-flowered type that cheerfully thrives in the unfriendly conditions of my front yard. Some of the clusianas are hybrids, but they have kept all the charm of their wild origins. Finally, these come up at all different times; acuminata is still up in mid-May. (Many of these might more accurately be called heirlooms, not species, if you want to be picky.)
As for daffodils, some comments on the Rice site accused him of elitism. In America, many public daffodil plantings are by volunteers with donated bulbs—such altruism is admirable; I’ve planted bulbs en masse myself and it’s not exactly tons of fun. The big daffodils don’t bother me that much, but I rarely use them in my garden; they’re too big for the space and if I don’t find the flowers hideous, the foliage sure is—as it dies back for years. Here again, miniature hybrid and species daffs can come to the rescue.
I don’t know too much about native American bulbs, but even I go wild over a truly spectacular wildflower like Lilium Canadense, which, unfortunately, seems to be virtually unavailable. Old House Gardens used to have it. And then there are the various erythroniums (trout lily)—gorgeous flowers and foliage, and grown all too rarely around here.
Bulbs of any kind make the short, brutish Northeastern spring worthwhile.