Daffodils are a wonderfully diverse group of bulbs thanks to years of careful hybridisation and selection. A scion of the narcissus family that is less often seen in British gardens is the tazettas, also known as Chinese sacred lillies, joss flowers or polyanthus narcissus. The reason for their relative scarcity is their alleged tenderness, a trait of their Mediterranean heritage which renders the plants slightly less tolerant of our cold, damp winters. Tazettas are extremely tall, up to 80cm, carrying blooms in bunches of up to eight atop their long stems. Whilst they are hopeless in a windy garden, they are ideal as cut flowers, blooming from the dawn of the year in clement spots such as the Isles of Scilly.
For fragrance, the tazetta narcissi are legendary. If you search a little you’ll discover there are several varieties commercially available. The Kim Kardashian of the family, known to all, is Narcissus tazetta ‘Paperwhite’, cultivated across the Northern Hemisphere to bloom at Christmas. Hybrids such as N. ‘Grand Soleil d’Or’ (yellow), N. ‘Ziva’ (pure white) and N. ‘Geranium’ (white with orange trumpets) are often used for forcing indoors. A new find for me this year was N. tazetta ‘Cragford’, which shares similar colouring to N. ‘Geranium’. Rather than grow them indoors I planted my bulbs tightly in pots outside and left them in the shelter at the base of a wall. Here they have come on slowly, flowering not at Christmas but in succession from mid March. The huge bulbs are now pumping out stem after stem of flowers, filling the air outside our front door with their potent fragrance (tazettas are grown commercially in Southern France to produce essential oils for the perfume industry).
The benefit of growing tazettas outside is that they do not become drawn and floppy like they do indoors, plus the flowers last much longer. Bought bulbs are typically large and will produce a generous number of stems provided they are planted in a gritty, well-drained compost. Give them a little protection from cold and excessive wet and they will perform as well as hardier types. Around town there are many gardeners who have successfully cultivated these beautiful bulbs in the ground, so they are well worth experimenting with if you have a warm, south-facing border. Just three or four stems are enough to bring the scent of spring into the house, so plant generously this autumn and you can expect to enjoy fragrant flowers for many weeks.