Those few alpines which flower in the very depths of winter are unusually precious. Of these, Narcissus romieuxii is amongst the best, if you can protect your plants under glass, in pots in an alpine house, or planted out in a bulb frame. Coming from above 1500 m in the Middle Atlas and Rif mountains of Morocco, this fine ‘hoop-petticoat’ is perfectly hardy and will withstand at least 15 degrees of centigrade frost while in full flower without being damaged. However, if exposed to the wind and rain of a typical English winter, the pristine flowers become dirty and spoilt, so it is best to give them some protection. Also, the bulbs need complete dessication in summer, and it is difficult to ensure this in the open garden.
The type subspecies romieuxii grows in the cedar and oak forests of the Middle Atlas and nearby ranges. Two clones in particular are commonly cultivated and both are good doers which multiply rapidly and flower profusely. The earlier, dwarfer and smaller flowered of these has been named ‘Joy Bishop’ after a well-known member of the AGS. This is often in flower by mid November and has a very long flowering season, usually continuing into early February. As it also has brown spathes (the ‘tissue’ from which the bud emerges), it may be best classified within var.rifanus from the more easterly Rif mountains. However, the varietal taxa which refer to plants originating from different districts of the Atlas mountains are not well understood, probably because plants within each area are so variable.
Perhaps a month later, rarely flowering much before Christmas and continuing well into February is the taller, larger flowered ‘Julia Jane’. With whitish spathes this may have originated from variety romieuxii or the dubiously distinct variety mesatlanticus which is however supposed to have flowers of a deeper yellow. ‘Julia Jane’ is a magnificent plant, which has the solitary fault that in a gale it tends to become a little dishevelled. Pull the stems together, shelter it from the wind, and it soon pulls itself together!
The commoner form in the Rif mountains and east into Algeria is subspecies albidus, sometimes given specific rank as Narcissus albidus. Compared with subspecies romieuxii, it tends to have paler flowers, more a slightly greenish magnolia rather than pale primrose, and the coronas (‘bells’) of the flower are usually longer and narrower. The form that I grow, variety zaianicus, was found in the Zaian mountains on the northern, seaward side of the Middle Atlas. It is immediately distinguished by the tall stems and reflexed leaves, so that the flowers stand clear of the foliage. This January flowering plant is perhaps the finest of the varieties I grow and has proved to be very vigorous here in Northumberland.I cannot emphasise too strongly the need to give all these plants a thorough drying off in summer. A few years ago I read that a distinguished grower of Mediterranean bulbs never completely dries them off, but leaves the pots in a sand plunge which is kept slightly damp in summer. When I followed this prescription for N. romieuxii, the bulbs were smaller, failed to multiply, and no flowers whatever were produced the following winter. When I reverted to the previous treatment in which the pots were lifted from the plunge in early May as the foliage withers and placed on a hot sunny ledge without any water for three months, it took two years for full vigour to be restored. I repot into fresh gritty sandy John Innes No 3 in the first week of August, water heavily, and keep the compost moist until growth starts. If there is no frost, I water with a dilute feed every two weeks throughout the winter.