Is there a more cheerful plant than a daffodil? This sunny flower is one of the earliest signs of life after winter, popping up in planters and borders as well as less likely places.
Spotting clumps of these flowers in the woods and abandoned estates has become one of my favorite pastimes whenever I need a break from the news.
How did these flowers get here? Are they all that’s left of a long-forgotten garden?
In Daffodil: The Remarkable Story of the World’s Most Popular Spring Flower, Noel Kingsbury, a British garden designer and horticultural consultant, explains:
These plants are clearly great survivors, thriving even in places where they have obviously been accidentally dropped or discarded–the flowers frequently mark where someone emptied the back of their car of garden waste into a ditch or hedge, little thinking that the event and scene of their crime would be annually and flamboyantly marked for so many years to come.
Kingsbury’s book provides information on the types, anatomy, growing conditions, history, and future potential of daffodils (also known as narcissus, among other names). They are low maintenance, resilient plants:
A great many daffodils are planted thus: 1) dig a hole, 2) throw in bulbs, 3) replace soil. They go on to thrive, as did many of those flung into hedges during wartime, when flower producers [in the UK] had to go over to food production. Daffodils are survivors, and their popularity is undoubtedly linked to their being so easy, vigorous, and indestructible. A little care, however, reaps greater rewards… (Kingsbury, Chapter 7)
There are over 27,000 varieties, and dedicated breeders are striving to add to this number.
“It is a burning question,” Kingsbury writes. “Why do people continue to breed plants after an acceptable garden plant has been produced?”
There are many possible answers. Harold Koopowitz, an American plant scientist profiled in the book, breeds daffodils because it’s “fun and creative.”
Doesn’t that sound great? I considered adding “extremely amateur daffodil breeding” to my list of activities to do while social distancing during a pandemic. Wouldn’t it be nice to produce a red daffodil? Or one that blooms throughout the summer? It would be a hands-on botany experiment for my homebound kids, who’d be interested in how daffodils reproduce:
Wild species spread themselves and their genes through seeds, and to a very limited extent by their bulbs dividing. The former…involves a mixing of genes between parents, so that there is always at least some variation in the offspring. The latter is a vegetative, clonal process, so the daughter bulbs will be genetically identical to the parent. (Kingsbury, Chapter 1)
But then I came to my senses.
“[I]t’s like playing roulette,” Koopowiz explains, “but it takes five to six years for the wheel to stop spinning.”
Daffodil breeding involves transferring pollen from one variety to the stigma of another variety, collecting the resulting seed, sowing it, and then waiting for it to grow and flower. According to Kingsbury, “It takes at least four years to get a daffodil to flower from seed[.]”
I don’t have that kind of patience. Also, I don’t know if any of my daffodils produce seeds. Many hybrids are sterile.
I’ll stick to enjoying the daffodils in my neighborhood and my garden, which includes two very popular varieties from well-known breeders, Carlton (bred by P.D. Williams, pre-1927) and Tête-à-tête (Alec Gray, 1949). This fall, I’ll plant more bulbs, and maybe a few of those will be varieties capable of producing seeds in the future.
Featured book: Daffodil: The Remarkable Story of the World’s Most Popular Spring Flower by Noel Kingsbury with photography by Jo Whitworth. Check it out to learn more about daffodils.
Images in this post: I took the first two pictures on March 22, 2020 during my walk around my neighborhood (I stayed at least six feet away from all neighbors). I took the other pictures in his post on March 21st in my yard. Other varieties of daffodils will bloom in April and May; however, I wonder if they will bloom earlier this year. The season started at least three weeks early.