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.
‘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.
‘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
Mrs. R. Sydenham
Madame de Graaff
Most of the Poet varieties
Glory of Nordwijk
Mrs. Walter Ware
List of Shy Seeders
Glory of Leiden
Duchess of Westminster
Madame de Graaff
All the Poet varieties
Poetarum (for its colour)