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What to plant this month: miniature narcissus bulbs

December 3, 2009 | 12:53 pm
Bulbs are the antithesis of an instant garden. But I am patient, willing to wait months for brown desiccated nubbins to flaunt their foliage, raise their buds to the sun and finally burst into bloom.

Fall is bulb planting time, though you’d never know it by visiting Southern California nurseries. This is the time of year that we should be sifting through baskets of bulbs, but instead I find I have to turn to catalogs and websites to feed my craving, particularly for miniature narcissus.

I planted my first miniature narcissus more than 30 years ago, and quickly learned that these peewee daffodils -- most of which hail from southwest Europe and northwest Africa -- would fare well in my San Fernando Valley garden. The first five adorable bulbs that I planted were of yolk-yellow Narcissus bulbocodium, the hoop petticoat daffodil. That clump grew contentedly in morning sun with occasional watering, and it returned each year with ever-more foliage and flowers.

IStock_000000794860XSmall Though most miniature (or dwarf) narcissus top out at 6 to 8 inches, growing conditions can affect size. I once put a selection of Narcissus triandrus called 'Angel’s Tears' in a blue-glazed bonsai pot whose footprint was no larger than a deck of cards. Within weeks, reedy 4-inch foliage and equally wee white daffodils as crisp as little nun’s hats completed the scene. The flowers repeated in the same pot the next spring.

Narcissus bulbs are toxic, so rodents, raccoon and deer do not eat them. In spite of this perk, narcissus (and other bulbs) are not widely grown by Southern California gardeners, and bulb displays are scarce in nurseries. That's unfortunate, as new gardeners may not chance upon these lovely plants, as I did. Instead, I turn to print and online catalogs for my fix.

This year, I’m ordering Narcissus cantabricus, a white hoop petticoat-like species from southern Spain and Morocco that requires hot dry summers and should do well with my California natives. In a moister spot, I may add a fragrant drift of yellow 'Baby Moon.' Or maybe 'W.P. Milner,' an 1869 heirloom with teeny ivory trumpets.

For a broad, easy-to-navigate mail-order selection of miniature narcissus, check Brent and Becky’s Bulbs. (But hurry -- Monday is the last day to order gardening bulbs.) You can also find some at McClure & Zimmerman buried within the various daffodil “divisions.” You might have to wait a few days for the mailman, but if bulbs have taught me anything, it's that some things are worth the wait.

-- Lili Singer

Photo credit: Narcissus cantabricus, top, by John Lonsdale /www.edgewoodgardens.net. Narcissus bulbs by Sandy Manter.