Heirloom Bulbs & Garden History • So Much More Than New
Read More: Daffodils
Garden Design Spotlights Daffodils Old and New
The spring 2017 issue of Garden Design arrived here last week with a host of excellent articles including profiles of Annie’s Annuals and Floret Flower Farm as well as “Small Gardens, Big Ideas” which explores gardens ranging in size from a fifth of an acre to a mere 400 square feet.
Best of all, though, is an eight-page article about daffodils which, I’m happy to say, gives heirlooms as much attention as modern varieties. (Thank you, Garden Design friends!)
“Deer hate them,” author Meg Ryan begins. “They’re low maintenance. They have a wildflowerish charm. And there are enough heirloom and newly developed varieties . . . that they offer gardeners endless opportunities for discovery. Says plant historian Scott Kunst, “They keep things richly complicated. . . .”
To see what else we talked about – as well as photos of dozens of daffodils including our heirlooms ‘Bantam’, ‘Beersheba’, ‘Butter and Eggs’, ‘Geranium’, ‘Mrs. Langtry’, ‘Rip van Winkle’, ‘Stainless’, ‘Sweetness’, ‘Thalia’, Trevithian’, and ‘Van Sion’ (aka ‘Telamonius Plenus’) – look for Garden Design at your local newsstand or bookstore, or subscribe online at gardendesign.com.
43 Daffodil Shows Begin Now – Including Michigan’s First!
From heirlooms to varieties so new they don’t even have names, tens of thousands of daffodils will soon be on public display in 43 ADS daffodil shows all across the country.
The season kicks off this weekend with shows in California, Louisiana, and Dallas; the spectacular National Show is March 10-12 in Sacramento; and it all ends May 7 in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.
Michigan will have its own show this year, April 26-27, at Fernwood Botanical Garden in Niles. For an added treat, the fields of breeder John Reed will also be open to the public. Organizers are hoping the events will help spur the founding of a Michigan Daffodil Society. (Sign us up!)
Unfortunately we recently discovered that the daffodil we’ve sold for many years as ‘Mrs. Langtry’ is actually some other as-yet-unidentified daffodil.
Our NOT ‘Mrs. Langtry’ (photo on right) came to us from one of Holland’s leading experts on historic bulbs, and as you can see it looks a lot like the TRUE ‘Mrs. Langtry’ (photo on left). It’s definitely a very old daffodil, probably from the late 1800s.
However, the cup of the true ‘Mrs. Langtry’ opens a pale, creamy yellow and then matures to what the official RHS/ADS description calls “yellowish white, with canary yellow at rim.” The cup of the NOT ‘Mrs. Langtry’, on the other hand, starts out a richer yellow and never quite gets to “yellowish white.”
We’ve already contacted everyone who ordered ‘Mrs. Langtry’ and offered a refund. We’ve also posted an EXPANDED version of this article at our website so you can learn more. Please share it and help us spread the word about this mix-up.
And here’s some happier news: Breeder William Backhouse apparently named ‘Mrs. Langtry’ not for Lillie Langtry, the scandalous Victorian actress, but for the wife of one of his gardeners who was also, more importantly, his family’s beloved housekeeper.
‘Thalia’ at Chanticleer: “Reliably Elegant and Breath-Taking”
Chanticleer horticulturist Emma Seniuk had high praise for the graceful white ‘Thalia’ daffodil in the June 2016 issue of Fine Gardening:
“This classic daffodil is so beautiful that upon first sight of the flower, I swore I would name my first-born daughter Thalia. Pure, nearly translucent white blossoms are held in sweetly nodding clusters with reflexed petals. There is a slight fragrance to the blooms, too.
“It is one of the latest blooming daffodils, with thin, grass-like foliage. This feature makes the deterioration of ‘Thalia’ a graceful event compared to other daffodils whose fat, heavy foliage collapses into a heap looking like a pile of discarded linguini.
“Stunning in combination with Virginia bluebells (Mertensia virginica), ‘Thalia’ is reliably elegant and breath-taking year after year.”
2016 Great Plant Picks: They’re Not Just for Humans
Every year since 2001, Seattle’s Elisabeth C. Miller Botanical Garden has released an annual list of Great Plant Picks. Although especially well-suited to gardens in the Pacific Northwest, many of these plants are also outstanding choices for gardens across the country.
Butterflies, bees, and hummingbirds are the focus of this year’s GPP list, and Rick Peterson provides an excellent introduction to it in Pacific Horticulture.
A few species tulips are also recommended, including T. clusiana and T. sylvestris which will have bees “bustling around the garden with satisfaction” and, in the right spot, will “reliably return year after year.”
Lost . . . and Found? Gaye’s “Tiny Little Cream-Colored Daffodils”
We love it when our customers use the “Special Requests and Feedback” section of our online order form. That’s where Gaye Ingram of Ruston, Louisiana, made this plea:
“If possible, I would like to order ten moschatus, even though the limit is five. I’ve missed it every year by ordering late. Saw it decades ago and fell in love with it. I’m well past retirement age and would like to see a wee colony in my lifetime. Thank you for considering my request.”
Being soft-hearted souls, we said yes, and when she replied, Gaye told us this story:
“Thank you! I’ve pursued that particular bulb (or what I believe is that bulb) since 1968. Not even 25 years old but with degrees almost in hand, my husband and I arrived in Ruston that year to teach literature (me) and history at Louisiana Tech. We found a sweet little 1930s house on a shady street that had belonged to the mother of the chair of the Interior Design department. We felt like grown-ups!
“In spring, tiny little cream-colored daffodils with nodding heads sprang up on the lawn. I’d grown up in Central Louisiana among people whose yards and gardens were filled with passalong plants and bulbs, but I’d never seen such a demure spring bulb. I marked them and vowed to dig one or two in the fall.
“Then we moved to another place, and built a new house. I searched ever after for those quiet creamy bulbs. Went back to the place where we’d lived, but the owners had seen no bulbs. Without care and probably having their leaves mowed in late spring, they’d given up the ghost.
“The next time I saw them was in Celia’s grandmother’s garden. [Ed. note: Our good friend Celia Jones owns a small farm near Shreveport where her grandmother once grew acres of daffodils.] Celia had only a few, and knew only a local name for them. Sometime later, when I discovered Old House Gardens, I talked with Scott, but back then you didn’t offer them and he couldn’t be sure about their exact identity. More recently, whenever you did offer moschatus I ordered too late. (One has to discipline herself to order bulbs when it is 95 degrees with 80% humidity, as it is here today!)”
We sent Gaye’s bulbs to her last week, but we’re still not sure whether our Dutch-grown moschatus – or the very similar ‘Colleen Bawn’ – is exactly the same as the once widely-grown heirloom she’s seeking. Daffodils are enormously varied, and the differences don’t always show up in photos. For example, the Dutch-grown N. jonquilla of mainstream catalogs looks very much like the heirloom N. jonquilla ‘Early Louisiana’ that we offer, but the Dutch jonquils bloom weeks later and never thrive as well in Southern heat. (Learn more.)
But we’re hopeful that Gaye now has the sweet little daffodil she fell in love with almost 50 years ago – and if you happen to be growing the beloved Southern heirloom known as goose-neck, swan’s neck, or silver bells, we’d love to hear from you!
Campernelle Narcissus: From Slave Quarters to Lake Superior
One of our all-time best-selling bulbs is our true, American-grown Campernelle narcissus. Often called the “large jonquil” in old books and catalogs, Campernelles are a naturally-occurring hybrid of Narcissus jonquilla (the “small jonquil”) and N. pseudonarcissus (Lent lily) collected from the wild sometime before 1601.
In zone-8a East Texas, our good friend and daffodil expert Keith Kridler makes an interesting observation about this enduring daffodil: “One of the things I’ve noticed in our area is that the black slaves nearly all had Campernelles and jonquils blooming where they lived. You often find at larger plantation headquarters that the main house where the white folks lived (this part of the country was poor, so we’re talking about a simple ‘dog-trot’ house here) has few if any daffodils, but back from the house aways and further down the spring creek, the slaves’ or sharecroppers’ location is marked with masses of these daffodils today.”
Although they’re best known and loved in the South, Campernelles also do fine for us here in zone-6a Ann Arbor – and sometimes even further north. For example, our good friend Nancy McDonald who lives near Lake Superior in zone-5a Grand Marais, Michigan, writes: “I’ve had your Campernelles since 1995 and they’ve done very well, multiplying freely. So maybe they’re hardier than you think, especially in a mix of sand and old horse manure” – and when your garden is insulated by ten feet of snow every winter, as Nancy’s is.
“Can you tell me what this flower is?” We get asked that a lot, and if it’s a daffodil, the answer is most often ‘Van Sion’, a 400-year-old double that’s so tough it can often be found growing deep in the woods where a house disappeared ages ago.
Two of our customers loved ‘Van Sion’ long before we helped them identify it. Christiane Shems of zone-5b Yarmouth, Maine, ordered 25 ‘Van Sion’ last fall, explaining:
“The first time I saw this old beauty was in my parents’ yard in France. It was love at first sight, and they smelled so good. I took some bulbs back with me to the US. That was years ago and I am still enjoying them every spring. I had been looking for more since then but without luck. Nobody knew what I was talking about, until I found you. My parents have both passed away since, and these bulbs are so much more dear to me now. Thank you!”
Then in February, Marilyn Gist of zone-7b Raleigh, North Carolina, emailed to say:
“There is a daffodil that grows in a part of my yard down by the lake where it can be quite soggy, especially in winter or after a tropical storm. They were here when I moved here in 1987, and they spread and naturalize all over the place. They are very early blooming – the first one opened January 31 this year, which has been on the cold side for us. They grow in part shade in very dry areas, and they also grow in full sun right at the edge of the lake where it’s quite wet, all in my red clay soil. Amazing, don’t you think?
“Not knowing what they were, I always called mine the Phyllis Diller daffodils, after her wild-looking hairstyle. I searched various bulb catalogs for them, but never found a match. Thank you so much for the newsletter article that helped me identify them as ‘Van Sion’!”
This is a landmark book, not only because of its content but simply because it’s been published. Twenty years ago I don’t think anyone would have even considered publishing an entire book devoted to the history of daffodils in America. And yet here it is, and that in itself is a testament to the progress that’s been made in convincing people that old plants can be just as garden-worthy as new ones, and that preserving them is as important as preserving historic buildings and other relics of our cultural history.
Our friend Sara Van Beck, the book’s author, has been an advocate for historic daffodils for many years. Her late father John Van Beck, was the founder of the Florida Daffodil Society and joined with me in the late 1980s to persuade the American Daffodil Society to establish a special section for Historic Daffodils in every ADS show across the country. In Daffodils in American Gardens, Sara shares the wealth of information – and images – that she’s collected over the years not only from old books and nursery catalogs but from letters, diaries, periodicals, and from exploring the daffodils that survive at historic places and abandoned sites throughout the Southeast. And what a wealth it is!
Although this may not be the easiest book to read (think dissertation rather than pop fiction) and Sara and I may sometimes disagree in our interpretation of the historical record, Daffodils in American Gardens is a major work of garden-history scholarship, and I’m thrilled that it’s been published. Congratulations, Sara, and thank you!
New and Free: Georgia Daffodil Society’s Historics Handbook
Our good customer Sara Van Beck of Atlanta has been a tireless explorer and advocate of heirloom daffodils for many years. Although her much-anticipated new book Daffodils in American Gardens: 1733-1940 won’t be released until February, you can get a preview of some of what it’s sure to include in her recent online publication Historics Handbook: A Short Field Guide to the Most Common Old Daffodils in the Deep and Coastal Southeast. The 66-page booklet can be downloaded for free from the website of the Georgia Daffodil Society. There’s no direct link to it, but just go to georgiadaffodilsociety.com, click on the Historics Handbook link at the very top of the page, and then click on the link under the GDS address.
No matter where you live, if you’re a fan of historic daffodils you’ll find this handbook a valuable resource. Most of the daffodils in it are hardy well into zone 5, and it starts off with universally helpful sections on Characteristics of Historic Daffodils, Saving and Moving Daffodils, Rules for Rescuing, and Taking Photos for Identification. More than 50 historic varieties are pictured and described, along with many unknowns, and Sara’s descriptions are often rich in details that will help differentiate a variety from other similar daffodils. Some photos may be confusing to gardeners further north because the colors of many varieties bleach to paler yellow or even pure white in the stronger sunlight of the South, but other than that they’re generally excellent.
Although the handbook is free to view or download, the Georgia Daffodil Society is welcoming donations in support of it, and we hope you’ll be inspired to send them a check.
Rogue Voles Teach Cornell Scientist about Animal-Resistant Bulbs
When voles ate bulbs intended for a study on deer-resistance, Cornell University’s Bill Miller made the best of it. In the fall, Miller had potted up the bulbs and put them into cold storage. Unfortunately in spring he discovered that “during the winter, prairie voles had taken up residence in the stacks of crates and had eaten more than 35% of the bulbs. We found two large nests of voles, and the youngsters were quite happy, well fed, and growing fast from their nutritious meals. . . . Of course we were not happy with this, but we used it as an opportunity to learn some things about vole feeding and flower bulbs.” The voles’ favorite bulbs included tulips, crocus, Anemone blanda, and Chionodoxa luciliae, but they avoided those listed below. Deer would, too, Miller points out, since deer and voles are known to have similar tastes.
Hyacinths – “Bulbs were not attacked and shoots were perfect when uncovered. . . . From this we can conclude that hyacinths are pretty immune to attack from voles, and my own experience suggests that deer usually leave hyacinths alone.”
Daffodils – “Voles dug in about 10% of the pots but did not damage the bulb or emerging shoots” – and most gardeners know that daffodils are reliably deer-resistant.
Elizabeth Lawrence & Friends on the Old White Trumpet Daffodils
Elizabeth Lawrence, the revered Southern garden writer, had a great interest in heirloom plants, searching for them in rural “market bulletins” and researching them in old books. In this 1971 newspaper column (later collected in Through the Garden Gate), she weaves together her own observations with those of fellow daffodil-lovers from almost a century before:
“Many years ago Carl Krippendorf lent me William Baylor Hartland’s Original Little Book of Daffodils (1887), the first catalog ever to be devoted entirely to daffodils. Hartland, an Irish nurseryman, said white trumpets were a specialty at Temple Hill, his place near Cork, and he listed nine varieties. One of these was ‘Colleen Bawn’. ‘No daffodil is more pure white,’ he said, ‘or so easily recognized by its broad twisted propeller-like perianth segments, and long cylinder-like trumpet.’ It is described in A. M. Kirby’s Daffodils (1907) as ‘a gem among white daffodils, silvery-white, drooping, nodding flowers; gracefully twisted petals. Best when grown in shade and grass.’
“’Colleen Bawn’ is still with us, though extremely rare. . . . It is very like the other small trumpets of its day, the silvery swan’s neck daffodil, Narcissus cernuus (now called N. moschatus), and the silver bells of old gardens, but the very narrow, very long trumpet distinguishes it from the others. The trumpet is distinctly yellow though very pale, at first, and the segments are fawn color. The second day it lifts its bowed head to a horizontal position, and both trumpet and perianth become silver white. It has a delicate fragrance.
“In One Man’s Garden, Miles Hadfield quotes from a letter that [daffodil breeder] George Herbert Engleheart wrote about these old trumpets: ‘Away back in the 188os and 1890s I was collecting old forms of white daffodil, chiefly from Ireland. Miss Curry — some years dead — used to hunt them up from old Irish gardens, and a small club of three or four of us used to share them. They were all white things of the ‘Colleen Bawn’ type, but varying in size and form. They didn’t take kindly to cultivation, and are mostly, I think, lost. I made some attempt to discover their history, and came to the conclusion that Irish religious houses must have had some connection with Spain and Portugal — the focus of the white species.’
“. . . From these beginnings Engleheart developed ‘Beersheba’ (1923), still to me the most beautiful of all white trumpets, and very early, usually blooming the first week in March. Engleheart described it as a ‘miracle of stately loveliness,’ and was vexed when [daffodil breeder] P. D. Williams criticized the trumpet as 1/4 inch too long.”
Another great old white trumpet is ‘Broughshane’, although it’s sturdy and handsome rather than graceful. See all the white trumpets we offer — and if you’re thinking of ordering ‘Colleen Bawn’, we encourage you to do it NOW because savvy gardeners have already snapped up over half of our very small supply for this fall.
A hand-written letter arrived here earlier this spring from our good customer Carolyn Brown of Creola, Alabama, and it was so joyful and inspiring, we wanted to share it with you:
“How I wish you could see your beauties in my colonial garden,” Carolyn writes. “My breath catches as I gaze upon the beauty. Why so few people here in the South have bulbs, I’ll never understand. As the daffies sway in the wind I’m reminded of Wordsworth’s poem” Daffodils. “How excellent a description it is.
“In your eighties, each day is more joyful than the day before, and the daffodils are prettier each day. I do hope God has daffies in heaven and I can plant acres and acres of them.
“My husband, Bob, has always said vintage roses are his favorite flower. He has around 150 this year. However he said my bulbs are getting to be his favorite, and they are far less work. In fact, he urged me to make this order. I try your smallest amount first and see how they do here, and then I go for a larger amount. I’m going to start on hyacinths next.
“Give your little dog a pat and a rub for me. Keep up your good work, and save as many bulbs as you can. And thank you all for giving an 80+ gal a wonderful life and joy with the beautiful — as my husband calls them – ‘daffy-down-dillies.’
French vs. English Jonquils: Did “Early Louisiana” Get its Start in New Orleans?
Our heirloom “Early Louisiana” jonquils are a wonderfully fragrant, unusually vigorous form of N. jonquilla that blooms weeks earlier than the ones sold by mainstream sources – but why? An intriguing answer to that question was offered in the March 2012 Daffodil Journal by the late Carl Amason, a founder of the Arkansas Daffodil Society and a great mentor for me when I first got interested in old daffodils 30 years ago.
Carl lived on the old family homestead in southern Arkansas, and four very old daffodils flourished there: Buttercups (his name for the original trumpet daffodil, aka Lent lily), Butter and Eggs, Twin Sisters, and jonquils – which he described as “a strain of Narcissus jonquilla which was vigorous, prolific to self sow,” and had a fragrance that would “make a statement, especially by moonlight on a warm night.”
But, he wrote, “I was frequently asked why some jonquil plantings were much earlier and more vigorous than others.” At first he “assumed that the more vigorous . . . were growing in established places with good soil and more sun.” Later he realized “there were two or more distinct strains of N. jonquilla, and that was the primary reason for the differences.”
The earlier-blooming strain was what he “came to call the French jonquil, to distinguish it from the English jonquil that bloomed a month later.” This strong-growing French strain “has become naturalized in north Louisiana, south Arkansas, and east Texas,” he wrote, but it’s not as common further east where the less vigorous strain “that came with the English speaking peoples from Virginia and the Carolinas” predominates. “Evidently,” he concluded, “the New Orleans settlers brought the earlier French strain upriver to Arkansas and east Texas.”
Native to Spain and Portugal, N. jonquilla has been naturalized in the nearby south of France for a very long time. Like many wild plants, it’s a highly variable species, and it’s reasonable to believe that centuries ago earlier-blooming strains were favored by gardeners along the sunny Mediterranean in France, while later-blooming strains were preferred in the more northerly British Isles – and the bulb fields of the Netherlands – where spring comes later and early flowers would be more likely to be damaged by late frosts. Carl’s French/English dichotomy also helps to explain why virtually all modern hybrid jonquils are later blooming. As he wrote, “The English strain was what the hybridizers, mostly British, used in their work because it was only natural for them to use what was readily available.”
“This is all speculation on my part,” he added, but his conclusions make sense to me. Today the English strain is widely offered by mainstream bulb-sellers, but if you want the vigorous, early-blooming, richly fragrant, heirloom French strain – grown for us in east Texas – we’d be glad to help you out!
When our good customer Jane Baldwin of zone-6a Moreland Hills, Ohio, found herself with surplus bulbs late one fall, she improvised an easy solution that ended up delighting her.
“A couple of years ago,” she writes, “I got caught by early snow so I planted the last of my daffodils in baskets. It looked fabulous and I highly recommend this to anyone, even if you’re not in the same predicament. In fact, it’s how I’m planting most of the daffs I ordered from you this fall.
“The baskets were just ones I found in the garage when we moved in. [If you don’t have any in your garage, thrift shops often sell them for a dollar or two.] They were nothing fancy, older and seasoned by years of use, approximately 6 inches deep and 1-3 feet across. I put a few inches of good potting soil in them and then planted the bulbs right smack against one another with their tips just barely covered by the soil. Smaller-flowered varieties such as ‘Thalia’ and ‘Niveth’ went in the smaller baskets and bigger ones such as ‘Beersheeba’ and ‘Carlton’ in the bigger baskets.
“I put them in our attached garage so they would get the necessary cold, and made sure that mice couldn’t get to them. I watered them at first but eventually the soil froze. At the end of winter when it started to thaw, I brought the baskets out on the patio to a sunny spot where they bloomed to perfection. Even though there were only 2-3 inches of soil under the bulbs and they were planted right next to each other, they performed just fine and looked exquisite in the baskets for a good long time. It was really very easy, and even our chipmunks and squirrels left them alone out there.
“At the end of spring I took the bulbs out of the baskets and kept them dry over the summer in the garage. Now they are planted on a hillside along my driveway where they continue to bloom beautifully – and every fall I plant more in baskets.”
Silver Bells, Presbyterian Sisters, and Eudora Welty
The small white daffodil known as Silver Bells, Swan’s Neck, or Goose Neck has been a cherished favorite in Southern gardens for a very long time.
Author Eudora Welty and her mother grew it in their Mississippi garden, and she wrote about it in her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Optimist’s Daughter, as Susan Haltom and Jane Roy Brown explain in their excellent One Writer’s Garden:
“Welty loved Silver Bells daffodils, ‘the nodding, gray-white kind with the square cup’ that a family friend brings to the funeral in Laurel’s father’s house in The Optimist’s Daughter.
“‘You know who gave me mine — hers are blooming outside,’ the friend says to Laurel, alluding to Becky [Laurel’s mother] having shared the daffodil bulbs in typical pass-along fashion. Years after her death, Becky’s gesture has circled back to comfort her daughter.
“Daffodils blooming in fields or woods throughout the South often mark the sites of bygone houses, where they traditionally lined the front walk. These flowers also may have reminded Welty of Elizabeth Lawrence, who also preferred white daffodils.”
Another favorite in the Welty garden was the fragrant, cluster-flowered narcissus ‘Avalanche’ which Eudora called Presbyterian Sisters “because they hang together.”
Welty’s home has recently been restored and opened to the public as a museum, and we’re proud to have supplied the daffodils, Roman hyacinths, oxblood lilies, tuberoses, dahlias, glads, and other bulbs that once again grow in her garden.