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Sex Among the Daffodils: or, Good Breeding

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As my geek complement to Daffodil Planter’s Daffodil Blogarama and the many other daffodil posts flashing yellow, pale pink, and white over the web, I’m offering a peek into the daffodil world of a hundred years ago.

Although maybe it’s not so geeky, since it’s mostly concentrated on sex. Daffodil sex, that is. Though a man of the cloth, the author of the “Daffodils” book in the British Present-Day Gardening series, Reverend Joseph Jacob,  has a passion for breeding. And, even more shockingly,  he thinks everyone should share it. “This fascinating pursuit, hobby, or business, to give it names which are appropriate to the different ends in view, is one which I advise every Daffodil cultivator to take up; whether it be for pleasure or with a view to business it is equally alluring and interesting.” (pg. 39) He talks of going from town to town in England, lecturing at daffodil societies, and how the members hung on his lips, asking questions about do-it-yourself breeding.

I wonder if the national convention of the American Daffodil Society will have any similar seminars? These days, we think of daffodil breeding as something only specialists can do, with special equipment and large fields and greenhouses. But, Jacobs says,  all we really need are labels and notebooks, plus little boxes for storing and carrying pollen (it’s viable for about two weeks, if you keep it dry and clean in a loosely covered box) and a camel’s hair brush, gently moistened in the mouth so the pollen will stick to it.

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‘Minnow’, a miniature unavailable in Jacob’s time

That’s all the physical equipment that’s required. The rest of it lies in knowledge, and patience.

One of the bits of knowledge we need to try our hand at our own hybrids is knowing when the time is ripe for sex. “…the best time for cross-fertilisation is between 10 A.M and 4 P.M….that in cold and sunless weather the operations should be repeated more than once…that the pollen brushes must be kept very clean, and all the pollen of one variety carefully removed before the same brush is used for any other variety; that it is not found necessary in practice to cover the fertilised bloom in any way with glass or muslin; and that, the seed-bearer should be growing in a  good open position.” (pg. 44-45)

But the deeper knowledge that’s required, the one all those daffodil societies were swarming around Jacob hoping to get, is the knowledge of family background. Some daffodils are good pollinators, some are not.  Since most of the daffodils of a hundred years ago are lost or obscure, I’m going to save his complete lists for the very end of this post, in the hope that some of you have grown the ones I don’t know about, or will be able to point out sources for them.

From his list of “Potent Pollen-Parents” (I told you it was about sex), only  a few remain that are available today: all the poet varieties, W.P. Milner,  and King Alfred. (King Alfred, as I’ve explained before,   is an antique daffodil that’s actually hard to find. If you read the fine type, you will see that below most ‘King Alfred’ blurbs is “King Alfred type”, which basically means any yellow trumpet daffodil that looks more or less like King Alfred and is cheap in production. They may not have the same pollen potency as their predecessor.)

King Alfred is also on the list of “Good Seed-Bearers”, as are most of the poet varieties. Golden Spur, another good seeder, is available through Old House Gardens, as is Lily Langtry. (I’ve grown Golden Spur, a simple yellow trumpet that makes the modern ones look a bit as if they’re on steroids; I have yet to make the acquaintance of the divine Mrs. Langtry.)

Of the “Shy Seeders” I recognize only Maximus (also available at OHG) and Empress, a daffodil I have admired but never bought due to price (I save my most extravagant bulb purchases for tulips, it seems. I might as well admit my prejudice; I have favorite children in the garden).

Amateur breeders today may have a harder time finding this kind of information, as breeding has become something specialized and hard in our minds. It’s making me wonder if a little diligent research among breeders might be a good idea.

But research won’t give me the final attribute I need for breeding: patience. “The one great drawback that can be urged against [breeding] is the time that must necessarily elapse between the seed-sowing and the harvest. From four to six or seven years is a long time to wait for results, but, as the oft-repeated quotation from old Philip Miller (1733) says, ‘After the first five years are past, if there be seeds sown every year, there will be annually a succession of flowers to show themselves; so that there will be a continual expectation, which will take off the tediousness which, during the first five years, might be very troublesome to some persons…’ ” (pg. 39-40)

Is it any wonder that I love old garden books? Where in modern literature would we find someone urging us, urging anyone, to go out in the garden with a camel’s hair brush and start our own hybrids?  Even if it takes seven years. And why not follow these old urgings? Many things have changed in the last hundred years, but, as a look at the emerging spring around us will show, sex still goes on in the same old way.

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‘Colleen Bawn’ – an antique now, but still in the future in Jacob’s day

Reverend Joseph Jacob’s Lists of Breeding Daffodils

(I don’t know what the ordering system for these lists is; clearly, not alphabetical. Maybe order of bloom time?)

List of Thirty Good Seed-Bearers:

Duke of Bedford

Lady Margaret Boscawen

Minnie Hume

King Alfred

Mrs. R. Sydenham

Madame de Graaff

Weardale Perfection

Firebrand

Judge Bird

W.B. Hartland

Oriflamme

Most of the Poet varieties

Emperor

Henry Irving

Golden Spur

Pallidus Praecox

P.R. Barr

Eyebright

Glory of Nordwijk

Bernardino

Acme

Golden Bell

Alert

Mrs. Walter Ware

Princess Mary

Mrs. Langtry

Albicans

Evangeline

Lord Muncaster

Decora

List of Shy Seeders

Empress

Horsfieldii

Glory of Leiden

Homespun

Maximus

Sir Watkin

Gloria Mundi

Flora Wilson

Crown Prince

Duchess of Westminster

Autocrat

Potent Pollen-Parents

King Alfred

Maximus

Eyebright

Emperor

Weardale Perfection

Circlet

Madame de Graaff

W.P. Milner

All the Poet varieties

Lulworth

Castile

Poetarum (for its colour)

{ 12 comments… add one }

  • Helen March 9, 2010, 2:21 pm

    Hi – My daffodils arent open yet although some have buds on them which look quite promising. What an interesting list of daffodils at the end of the post, I dont think I have heard of any of them. Ihave some tulips growing from seed which is taking years so you definately need alot of patience

  • Pomona Belvedere March 9, 2010, 3:14 pm

    Helen, I’d be intrigued to know what tulips you have growing from seed. I have often thought of growing them from seed but never actually done it. Did you hybridize, or just collect seeds from the varieties you have?

  • Frances March 9, 2010, 3:20 pm

    Rats, Pomona. Waiting seven years and walking around with a cleansed camel hair brush is right up my alley, but we not have a single one of those listed, whether shy or potent. But that doesn’t mean we might not have some fun when the daffs are open. We often see swollen seed pods on many of them, a good sign! Thanks for this, I guess that means I am a geek.
    Frances

  • Meredith March 9, 2010, 3:22 pm

    I don’t know that I’ve heard of any of those except the Poets, which I love and cherish for their delicate fragrance. So many old things seem to be new again in today’s gardens — why not daffodil breeding? :) It sounds wonderful. (I used to daydream of being an amateur rose breeder, so I can grasp the allure 100%.)

  • Pomona Belvedere March 10, 2010, 10:02 pm

    I’d love to hear from either of you if you try it. It might be fun even to experiment with just one cross-breeding, keep it low-key.

  • Steve March 13, 2010, 4:43 am

    The Reverend – and those daffs – are quite a surprise. The ideal time for sex being between 10 AM and 4 PM could only have been written by a true idealist, lol. Maybe they meant – “With a shovel?”

    OK, enuff. Great and fascinating article, once again. You regularly provide some of the best reading in the blogosphere. I cannot tell you how I admire your work, dear. Keep it up!

  • Cyd March 14, 2010, 7:26 am

    I agree with Steve.

  • Ronald Sepulvado May 4, 2010, 12:18 pm

    With in the last two years I have fallen in love with Daffodiles, I have many different viriaties and am very interested in breeding. Some of what was said sounds fairly basic and simple. My question is what would some combinations create or known crosses? So I wouldn’t (I hate to use the word)waste my time trying to create something unique.

  • Pomona Belvedere May 4, 2010, 8:16 pm

    Ronald, that’s a good question. I do have a fairly comprehensive book on Narcissus (from Timber, always a trustworthy press for things garden and botanical) which includes the parentage of many varieties. But I think your best bet would be to go to the Daffodil Society of your country. I’d be willing to be there are records you could have access to online. At least they’d be better equipped to answer your question than I.

    But you may be interested to know that at least in the case of crinums (another bulb), crossing the same two parents does not necessarily recreate the same flower. And in narcissus, two seedlings bred from the same cross can produce different plants.

  • Jessica February 16, 2011, 6:36 pm

    I was wondering what if breed a daffodil and a lilac together what plant would you get? could you please email me when you have an answer.

  • Steven Edholm March 5, 2015, 6:05 am

    I’ve been crossing daffodils for 4 years and just got my first bloom with another on the way this week! At first I was desperate just to see the seeds form and the first seedlings poke their leaves out of the planting flat, but then I chilled out and became inexplicably patient. It’s nice though to actually have evidence that it works and now I get to see new blooms every year for as long as I keep it up. My approach is rather sloppy. If we’re doing it for fun, the anticipation and seeing the results of our labor can be very satisfying and arguably less stressful and more enjoyable as a process than obsessively trying to make something perfect… even if the results are not as stellar. I don’t keep track of my crosses but rather just toss all the seeds together for growing out. Sometimes I collect anthers and dry them in little jars, but often I just pull a couple out with tweezers and rub them on the girl parts. I do this in the late morning to early afternoon. I have spent virtually no time researching pollen or seed fertility. It is so easy to make enough crosses for 100 seeds that it doesn’t seem worth the bother. An article in the guardian on Ron Scamp, a daffodil breeder, says that crossing different cup colors can often have unsatisfactory results and that the pollen parent gives color, while the seed parent gives form. Those are about the only guidelines I follow. I’ve generally had good success and I’d say that well over half of what I pollinate sets seed. I haven’t had much luck with the small Tazzetta type Narcissus though. They are trickier to pollinate and largely weather dependent according to Bill Welch, aka The Bulb Baron.

    I think putting together a stable of good breeding stock is probably much of the battle. Unfortunately, a lot of the cutting edge stuff is very expensive. This fall I hope to be able to pick up a few choice bulbs for breeding. Now those, I might research for fertility 😉

    My experiments and experience are chronicled in a blog series called Daffodil Lust on my Turkeysong blog here: https://turkeysong.wordpress.com/2010/11/11/daffodil-lust/

  • Steven Edholm March 5, 2015, 6:07 am

    BTW, I also do not emasculate the blooms . I’ve only seen one variety ever set seed on it’s own here, so I just don’t bother. It’s not that hard to do with tweezers though if self pollination is an issue.

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