I guess no day in the history of the world, anywhere, was more beautiful than March 27 this year, though most of us had to be at work. The sun had gained sufficient strength to be worth bothering with and the sky was cornflower blue and the temperature was in the 70s.
It was a day, at last, to do all that cleaning up that has been postponed since fall. It is not pleasant to tie up climbing roses, to clip out dead hunks of box, to remove the tall old lily stems, etc., etc., when the day is gray or when the wind blows and the air is bitterly dry.
But then when a glorious day comes, it is too beautiful to waste it on such projects, especially if you have to be in the office in three hours. It is better to wander about.
The flower buds of the tree peonies are visible. The plant is hardy to the North Pole, I imagine, but any flower buds, as they swell, are vulnerable to hard freezes. This is why they are given sheltered positions -- not that the plant cannot take cold, but that the buds come so early they may be frozen.
A pretty example of shelter has been seen in front of the National Geographic on 17th Street, where a fine row of Chinese magnolias has been blooming. These beautiful rose-flowering trees are always susceptible to freezes in March, but on the east side they are sheltered by the building and on the west by a row of elms now in blossom but bare of leaves. The tracery of their branches was sufficient to protect the pink magnolias, however, and a valuable lesson in how little is needed.
It's good to see a wider variety of summer-blooming bulbs available nowadays. Recently I bought a good bulb of the pink Crinum powellii at Seneca Falls nursery on Rte. 7 and several superb large bulbs of the pink Amaryllis belladonna at Meadows Farms farther out the same road. I have failed before with the amaryllis, but hope this time to succeed since the bulbs are top-size.
The crinums like plenty of water in a spot in full sun, and bloom off and on through the summer. Their disadvantage is that the leaves can fill a circle three or four feet across, when established, and many town gardeners hesitate to give so much space in the best part of the garden to a summer bulb. The amaryllis likes to bask right against a wall facing south, and unlike the crinum, which loves heavy loam, prefers a sandy loam on the dry side.
Last winter I put a great sack of leaves atop "Cecil Houdyshel," another pink crinum, and see the neck of the bulb is still firm, so I hope for results this year. It may not be as tough as C. powellii, the finest batch of which I found in the unlikely town of Canterbury in southeastern England, where this crinum was massively planted in a public square.
I could not understand how a mass of the yellow red-cupped daffodil "Red Rascal" turned up under a grape vine in the garden, and then it all came back to me. It is a heavy graceless daffodil, though showy enough, and I dug up a lot of it last July and dried off the bulbs, proposing to plant them where I wouldn't have to look at them, but where they would flourish as cut flowers. Evidently I forgot them. The bulbs sat on top of the ground all winter and are flourishing mightily -- it has a good constitution.
This year the Daffodil Society's big free show will be April 20 and 21 at the Botanic Gardens (First and Independence) at the foot of Capitol Hill. My guess is that the date is on the late side and we shall see some of the choicest flowers, especially the lovely whites with short cups rimmed with soft colors.
Most gardeners are devoted to the earliest daffodils, and no wonder, since nothing in the whole year is more exciting than the rich daffodil golds in March. And of course there are some lovely early varieties, like the white "Jenny" and the small gold "Tete a Tete," which has three flowers on a stem when it is robust, otherwise just one. And some of the early trumpets are more than agreeable, they are exquisite, especially such favorites as "Arctic Gold." When this variety was brand new it was the answer to a dream -- a vigorous healthy trumpet of great refinement, and strangely enough such daffodils are a greater achievement than you would think.
For some decades I grew the white trumpet (the cup sometimes goes pinkish buff with age, depending on the season) "Trousseau," mainly because it was the favorite daffodil of an old friend. I brought a few tiny offsets to my new garden 10 years ago and now, for some years, they have produced large delicate blooms better than the ones I used to grow in Tennessee when this variety was still new and costly.
But it may safely be said that the most beautiful daffodils come late in the season, long after the casual gardener has forgotten the excitement of the first March flowers, so it is good to think we shall see some of the late kinds at the show this year.
Daffodils of the same variety are not the same every year. Of course they do not change color or anything like that, but in some years they are waxier than others, and sometimes the proportion of the cup to the petals will vary.
The most beautiful daffodil I ever saw was the white "Wedding Bell," maybe 20 years ago. It has always been a lovely flower, though sometimes the cup is on the wide side, and it has never been accounted a preeminent show flower. But as I saw it once, it was the most beautiful white daffodil I ever saw, even up till now. I should say that I have grown it off and on over the years and never have seen it so remarkable again.
The same is true of the red-cupped white, "Glenwherry," the finest of its type I ever saw; but I have seen it many years and never beheld it so supremely brilliant, the white petals so flawless, as I saw it once, when it surpassed flowers of its type.
If the weather is soft and moist, not too hot and certainly not cold and windy as a daffodil bud develops, you will see that flower at its best. Another year, with harsher conditions, it may still be handsome but lacking that other-worldly texture and glow. When "Arbar" was new I had to have it, but in all the years I grew it I only had one perfect flower from it, and then it was a flower in a million. Commonly, if you have 20 or 50 blooms of one variety, you will see that one is surprisingly more radiant than the others; which is one reason that people who grow a lot of daffodils are more likely to win at shows -- they choose the best from a larger field. Or should.
Deep digging, plenty of peat and leaf mold, protection from violent winds and a too-hot sun, are the simple secrets of fine daffodils. And, of course, a careful selection of varieties. Some daffodils are well enough for a festive show in the garden -- the somewhat coarse white trumpet, "Mount Hood," for instance, which I see I still grow -- but at their very best will not show the grace, the texture, the refinement of proportion, of a daffodil like the white "Rashee," even if the two look the same when you see them at a distance.
In small city gardens it makes sense to grow the most beautiful kinds, that not only make a brave show as a garden clump, but which also seem more and more beautiful the more carefully you examine them. Many daffodils of superb quality are now as cheap as daffodils of coarser type, and a good show like the one in Washington is one way to see the sorts that seem to you better than the rest.
Quality does not necessarily bear a dollar mark. The old white trumpet "Cantatrice" was a flower of high quality when it was introduced some decades ago, and it remains a flower of exceptional beauty, though now about as cheap as any.