Southern Japan year round is a place of flowers and no plant exemplifies that more than Narcissus tazetta, Japan’s answer to a paperwhite daffodil. This plant can be found in various stages of bloom anytime from late December through February along the roadsides and fields of southern Japan, precisely during the coldest weather. It is member of the tazetta daffodils – those species and hybrid daffodil that have clustered, cup shaped flowers, and flower during the winter months into early spring. N. tazetta is close relative to the most famous member of the group, Narcissus papyraceus, the common paperwhite.
In late autumn the new leaves emerge, forming large clumps, sometimes almost carpeting the ground. They look like most other daffodil leaves, long and thin, and blue-green in color. Each can be up to 60 cm tall when full grown, but most clumps don’t exceed 40 cm or so. Perhaps more than other types, tazetta daffodils form large clumps, in fact it is nearly impossible to find a plant that isn’t in a clump. If you lift a group of N. tazetta you’ll find its bulbs clustered in masses. They are typical tunicate bulbs, as with all members of this genus. Each bulb supports anywhere from 2-5 leaves, and usually one flower stalk. These grow throughout the winter into early spring when the plant goes fully dormant.
The flowers are born in clusters on long stems that match or exceed the highest leaves. Each cluster has from 1-7 cup shaped flowers. The typical flower color is white and orange yellow, but very pale colored forms exist as well as pure yellow flowers. The six outer petal-like segments (called the perianth) are usually pure white and slightly reflexed backward. The inner cup like structure (called the corona) is orange-yellow in color.
It is the corona that gives this plant the species epithet, tazetta, from the Italian word tazza, which is a shallow wine cup on a pedestal-like base. The flowers last 2 or more weeks long and tend to open at one time. Their odor is intense, but not unpleasant, and much more floral scented than the musty smell of N. papyraceus. They are frost resistant to several degrees.
In Japan N. tazetta can be found in the warmer regions of Honshu, Kyushu, and Shikoku, but is not native. It is thought that it came from China centuries ago, represented by the variety orientalis (AKA v. chinensis), but very likely was brought to that country in the distant past from the Near East along trading routes. In Japan it is found on roadsides, on rice patty embankments, along rivers, and in vacant lots in both agricultural and urban environments. A number of different flower forms and hybrids are frequent garden plants in Japan and elsewhere. The commonly grown N. tazetta ssp. italicus is in fact the hybrid between N. tazetta and N. papyraceus, the paperwhite narcissus, and is an import from Italy. Unlike its parents, it is a sterile mule, and so can only be increased through division.
It’s Japanese name is suisen, meaning “water wizard” from the words sui meaning water and sen meaning wizard. This is a derivative of the Mandarin name, shui xian hua, meaning “water goddess flower”. Don’t ask me why. The variety orientalis is known as the Chinese sacred lily in the west. This plant is perhaps the oldest cultivated daffodil.
Like paperwhite bulbs, those of this species can be forced to flower early, even around Christmas time, since they require little or no chilling to flower well. In the ground they are easy to keep and grow on for years, in time forming formidable clumps. Like other daffodils, they benefit from being divided and given more room, but will continue to flower well even if left in large patches (unlike many of the large flowered hybrid daffodils). The soil need not be anything special either, any good loam that is not too acidic is fine. They need moist ground during their winter growing/flowering phase, however they easily handle drying off a bit in summer. Dividing clumps or drying bulbs for forcing is best done in summer when the plant is in full dormancy.
The only negative thing about N. tazetta and its hybrids is they are not very cold hardy. In the US they can be grown through the southern states as well as the Pacific coast from USDA cold hardiness zones 7-9, but will not likely do well in colder or warmer zones. The exception might be southern coastal California where summer temperatures are not too high. This species is found naturally in the Mediterranean region of southern Europe and the Near East and so does well in regions with a similar climate – hot summers that aren’t too wet, and winters that are mild and moist.
Take a look at this species growing in Japan along the rivers and streets of Fukuoka, Kyushu in this video. Also seen are the related plant, Narcissus papyraceus, the double flowered cultivar, ‘Double Roman’, and two hybrid tazetta type narcissus, N. Grand Soleil d’Or and N. tazetta v. italicus.
This cheerful little plant is yet another flowering bulb deserving a space in warm temperate gardens. You’ll find it truly maintenance free and a steady plant, increasing and flowering each year with little fuss. If you find its simply charms not enticing enough, many colorful tazetta daffodil hybrids exist and are commonly available on the world market.