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Narcissus ‘Beersheeba’: a Biography, part 2

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While reference books gave me a little sense of the role ‘Beersheeba’ played in daffodil history, I thought I’d like to branch out a little, to see if I could find more of Beersheba’s story.

The ‘snippet views’ at Google Books can be tantalizingly frustrating – they give you only a bit of a sentence around the word you are searching for. Still, even these tiny offerings can offer insight: I would love to know what the House of Commons debated on NARCISSUS ‘BEERSHEBA’ in 1971. But that knowledge is denied me.

Even the scantiest information makes it clear that ‘Beersheba’ was used extensively in breeding, and remained one of the most popular white daffodils for many years after its introduction to the world.  It won prize after prize, and not only in England. The  New Zealand Railways Magazine pictured Beersheba among six of “the best blooms shown at the National and Auckland Daffodil Shows, 1932.” The famous daffodil breeder Guy Wilson used Beersheeba in his breeding programs, ensuring that Beersheeba genes got into the many daffodils that have been bred off his own hybrids. Even a brief glance at breeding records from the UK and the US shows that Beersheba chlorophyll may be lurking in many of our modern white daffodils, so popular was it for breeding early in the century.

But Beersheba also shone on its own, not just as a parent. Its long popularity testifies to that. In 1939, the Herbertia, the American Plant Society’s publication, mentioned Beersheba as a “supreme variety, fully proven”.

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In 1948, 25 years after ‘Beersheba’ first made its appearance, “Flowers in Colour” (obviously a pamphlet meant for general home-garden use, nothing esoteric) lists it as “a pure white, producing finely shaped large flowers suitable for second-early forcing or for garden decoration”. When they first open, the “pure white” – the trumpets, particularly – is more of a cream. And grown in shade, the trumpet of my Beersheeba stays creamy. With more sun, they go to that sparkling white these older records keep warbling about.

“In 1966, daffodil expert George S. Lee, Jr., lauded ‘Beersheba’ -then the most widely grown of all white trumpets-as a “flower of perfect form and purity of color that it still holds its own after 40 years, ” reports Scott Kunst, in a 1989 version of his Old-House Journal. Scott Kunst is the owner of Old House Gardens, where I got my Beersheba bulbs. Yes, the world of heirloom bulbs is a small one.

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McClure and Zimmerman, which also carries Beersheeba, describes it as “a more delicate version of Mt. Hood” (another heirloom white, which I am very fond of). This description appears word-for-word as a Martha Steward article quote, so I assume it was cribbed from McClure and Zimmerman. While generally McClure and Zimmerman’s writeups strike me as amazingly good (they’re one of the remaining catalogues that relies on words and line drawings to entice), this one strikes me as an insult to both Mt. Hood and Beersheba. It’s like saying an ear of wheat is a more delicate version of corn on the cob. It is, but their uses and personality are so different that saying so doesn’t get us much further forward.


On the other hand, another tiny snippet gave me a lot of information, since I have the context to put it in: Elizabeth Lawrence liked Beersheeba. For some of us, that’s enough, as far as garden taste goes. It also means that this is a daffodil that will do well in warmer areas, up through about zone 8, or maybe higher in the west.

But clearly Beersheba is a wide-ranging daffodil. Dave’s Garden lists the plant as growing in Garberville, California (a northern California town with mild winters and burning summers) and Nantucket, Massachusetts (a lot colder). There are clues to this in some of the older snippets, as well as some of the more modern writeups on what has now become a hard-to-find antique: Beersheba is recognized as a reliable garden citizen, coming back and establishing itself comfortably.

Sometimes it’s good, though painful, to smash old worlds and go on to something new. But Beersheeba is such a beautiful survivor of another world: I’d like to see it come back. Partly because that would signify that at least sometimes, there is a place in the world for the refreshment of quiet beauty.

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{ 9 comments… add one }

  • Frances April 7, 2010, 4:35 pm

    What a great story, Pomona! I only knew of Mt. Hood, when it was first discovered in my early gardening days that daffodils came in anything other than straight King Alfred yellow. Beersheba seems to have a more slender trumpet with some interesting colorings, whiter shades of pale, if you will.

    There seems to be some code mix up sneaking into your post. I assume that is not intentional?

    Frances

  • Gail April 8, 2010, 4:10 am

    It’s a lovely daffodil and while I appreciate the a big yellow daffodil on a chilly day to herald spring…I am drawn to these white ones. I planted Narcissi triandrus ‘Thalia’ and love the flowers…I am going to look for Beersheba at M&Z (love their catalog, too). gail

  • Pomona Belvedere April 8, 2010, 9:48 am

    Frances, I’ll look into the code stuff, thank you. It doesn’t show up on my browser, so I appreciate the alert. By the way “Whiter Shade of Pale” is not only one of my favorite all-time songs (well, me and billions of others), but one I am currently learning.

    Gail, I know what you mean about the yellow daffs. The white ones have their own appeal. And I totally love ‘Thalia’, in fact I was going to do a feature post on that but then my Beersheeba popped up after a two-year absence.

  • Scott Kunst April 9, 2010, 5:06 pm

    Pomona, Thanks for all the interesting info you dug up about Beersheba! I love stuff like that. I love Beersheba’s long slender trumpet, too, which is so different from Mount Hood’s beefy chunkiness (which is also nice in its own way). The Old-House Journal that you mention is not “mine” but the original home-restoration magazine which I’ve been a subscriber to for decades. I named my company in honor of it because I wanted to be for gardens what it is for houses, sort of. You’ve been a wonderful supporter of ours, and I was hoping maybe you could include our web address in this article so people like Gail know they can get Beersheba from us (as you did) instead of only M & Z. Happy spring! Scott

  • lostlandscape (James) April 10, 2010, 8:51 pm

    I love that first photo of Beersheba backlit with the shadows on the petals…a delicate effect on a delicate flower. Maybe it’s because we don’t get snow, but I really prefer the white flowers to the yellow. (After several months of looking outside at white I could see how some people would go gaga over the first yellow daffodil of spring.)

    I’ve done a little recreational plant breeding and it’s easy to get caught up in the latest, newest thing. But you’ve shown how some of the classic plants have lots to offer and really should be appreciated on their own terms.

  • Pomona Belvedere April 11, 2010, 10:50 am

    Hey Scott, it’s an honor to hear from you! Thanks for clarifying the Old-House Journal thing, I didn’t get much info from the Google snippets. I did put your web address in; it’s the link right where I discuss getting the Beersheeba bulbs from you. I think your Beersheeba/Mt. Hood comparisons are very accurate!

    James, interesting thought about preferring yellow daffodils after all the white snow. The white narcissi are almost like different plants to me, their effect is so unlike the yellow ones (which I also love). It’s be great to have a setup where I could really get serious about some breeding. I’m the type who would want to have species daffodils, so I could understand more about what I was working with.

  • Dr. John Stoffolano June 14, 2012, 7:13 am

    Hello, I am an entomologist at the Univ. of Mass. in Amherst and want to collect large numbers of the adult Narcissus bulb fly. Do you know where I can get some? I need them alive. Thanks. Professor Stoffolano

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  • Liz Tedder March 10, 2015, 10:55 am

    Just getting curious as I do this time when my white daffodils start to bloom. I have lots of old ones as we own a 1830 plantation in Newnan, Ga. Which blooms first Mt. Hood or Beersheba? And, what is the difference in Solome and Mrs Backhouse? Two of my older gardening friends shared bulbs with me about 30 years ago before they passed., so I have 10 or so varieties that I never see anywhere else or in any bulb catalogs. I am going to take pictures this year. Any help will be appreciated. I also have a Cemetary full of Byzantine glads in 2 shades of pink and just the last couple of years a very pale (almost white) is showing occasionallly, Three so far.
    far.

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