The Most Fragrant Narcissi

By Andy McIndoe

Most daffodils have a fragrance, some will miss it completely, and others will delight in its light, cool, spring-like notes. However there are some narcissi that are deliciously fragrant, a scent that is sweet, captivating and unique. This is a fragrance that has been treasured since ancient times; Narcissus tazetta var. orientalis was grown in Ancient Egypt and Israel for the perfume of its flowers. Known as the Chinese Sacred Lily, it has been used in China for New Year's celebrations for generations; a gift of life and good fortune.

Narcissus tazetta is a native of the eastern Mediterranean and gives its name to a host of varieties grown for their fragrant blooms; small cupped flowers that are carried several on a stem. Probably the best known, and most widely grown is Narcissus 'Paperwhite Grandiflora'. This is the one usually grown for indoor decoration that grows quickly, flowering just weeks after planting. Like the species it is not hardy enough for those of us living in cool, temperate climates to grow outdoors. But it is ideal for forcing and for production as cut flowers.

Narcissus 'Soleil d'Or'

Similar in habit, but more vibrant in colour, is the yellow and orange Narcissus 'Grand Soleil d'Or'. A few years ago this would have ranked in popularity alongside 'Paperwhite', but today the white flowered narcissus is preferred. Nonetheless this is another good one to grow for forcing. Varieties of Narcissus tazetta are grown commercially in the south of France for the production of the essential oil. This is used in perfumes and is also attributed with medicinal properties, apparently in the treatment of influenza. The fragrance is sweet, powerful with notes of bitter orange; what I would call an addictive scent, once sniffed you came back for more.

Narcissus 'Martinette'

However, for me that fragrance is one I prefer on cold air, rather than in a warm room. Narcissus 'Martinette' is an excellent, hardy variety of tazetta narcissus that succeeds in a well-drained soil in the garden. The flower is similar to 'Soleil d'Or' and it flowers early in the season. A great choice to add to beds and borders and lovely for cutting.

Narcissus 'Geranium'

Narcissus 'Geranium' is a much stockier multi-headed narcissus with rounded blooms, white petals and deep orange cups. It is strongly fragrant and striking, and is probably closer in colouring to the wild Narcissus tazetta than most widely grown cultivars. You can grow it in pots for indoor or outdoor use and it responds well to gentle forcing, in other words bringing the pots of bulbs into gentle warmth once the buds have emerged from the bulbs.

Narcissus 'Bridal Crown'

Today the scented variety you will come across most frequently for indoor cultivation is the double, cream flowered, Narcissus 'Bridal Crown'. It is richly fragrant, almost jasmine-like, and long lasting in a cool room. It is strong and compact with stout stems and upright foliage. The colour is lovely and so is the scent. Personally I find its habit inelegant and I prefer it as a cut flower.

Narcissus 'Sir Winston Churchill'

In the garden Narcissus 'Sir Winston Churchill' is similar, but with larger, looser flowers, two or three on a stem. The petals are light cream in colour and the blooms have a lovely yolky centre, something like a cream egg. This is a really good garden narcissus for pots, or for the open ground; one that will reliably perform year after year.

Narcissus 'Yellow Cheerfulness'

Narcissus 'Cheerfulness' has stood the test of time, both as a garden flower bulb and as a cut flower. It tends to bloom later in the narcissus season and comes in two shades: cream and yellow, the latter about the colour of fresh custard. Both sit well in the garden; particularly delightful surrounded by blue forget-me-nots. As cut flowers the scent of the double flowers, two or three on a stem, is delightful, and not as heavy as the small cupped tazetta narcissi. The neat, but elegant double flower form seems to sit more happily with a wide variety of plants than many other daffodils and narcissi.

Narcissus White Lion

Narcissus 'White Lion' is one of a host of large, double flowered narcissi; many are double forms of single, cupped varieties. Strangely these double forms are usually very fragrant, more so than the single-flowered counterparts. 'White Lion' has been described as having "gardenia-like" blooms because of its flower form and layers of lemon and cream petals, and of course it's delicious scent. I find it a useless garden plant. Like most large flowered doubles the stems tend to bend and break under the weight of the flowers, especially after rain. I would grow it, but I would grow it for picking; it makes an excellent cut flower.

Narcissus 'Mrs. Backhouse'

Most of the pink trumpet daffodils and narcissi are fragrant. The oldest of the pink trumpet daffodils, Narcissus 'Mrs. R.O. Backhouse' is one I remember from my days in a florist more than 40 years ago. The owner of a local estate picked them and brought them in when the blooms were fully open. That is when the trumpet is true salmon pink. The fragrance is light but lovely, quite unlike yellow daffodils.

Narcissus 'Actaea'

The pheasant eye narcissi, with their tiny cups are also renowned for fragrance. Narcissus 'Actaea' has broad white petals and a small dep red, golden-eyed cup. It is sweetly scented and a good garden variety which also naturalises well in grass. In recent years stocks have been lacking, perhaps due to disease problems.

Narcissus poeticus var. recurvus

These narcissi with tiny, flattened cups are known as poeticus narcissi. The true pheasant's eye, or poet's daffodil is Narcissus poeticus var. recurvus, one of the latest narcissi to flower. It is more graceful than 'Actaea', creamier in the petals and powerfully fragrant. It is one of the oldest narcissi in cultivation and is grown in the Netherlands and South of France for the production of perfume. The scent is reminiscent of jasmine and hyacinth; sweet and heavy; perhaps less orangey than Narcissus tazetta.

Narcissus x odorus 'Double Campernelle'

Although there is a species of narcissus that specifically relates to it, the term jonquil is used for any multi-headed, single flowered narcissus. It is also used for a pale yellow colour and a sweet but delicate fragrance. Narcissus odorus is one of the so called "jonquils" with narrow leaves, bright green flower stalks and in the case of Narcissus odorus 'Double Campernelle', small, double, golden-yellow flowers with a wonderful fragrance. I obtained this one by accident, thinking I had bought a larger flowered variety and I have it naturalised in grass. It has a fine and delicate habit, normally only one flower stem and is delightfully scented. It seems to be rarely offered commercially but it is well worth looking out for.

Andy McIndoe

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