IT'S NOT true, in gardening, that if real improvements are made in the beauty of some sorts of flowers, then they will soon be found in gardens.
Hardly any of the most beautiful daffodils that have been raised, for example, are easily available to the ordinary, or only moderately fanatical, gardener.
It's been 35 years since the yellow daffodil with red cup, 'Ceylon' was raised, and from the start it was clear enough that here was a superb daffodil, and yet ordinary gardeners may look for it in vain at the garden centers, seed stores, hardware stores, where they buy their bulbs.
In Washington in recent years (all these spring-blooming bulbs are acquired and planted outdoors in the fall, by the way) there has been no shortage of yellow daffodils with red cups, but not 'Ceylon.'
There are several reasons for this.
First, the bulb industry depends less on the garden use of flowers than on the cut-flower market. The home gardener hardly cares whether a daffodil works well in a greenhouse, but it can be an important factor to the bulb industry.
The home gardener does not care whether a daffodil blooms in late March or early May -- he wants a succession of flowers anyway -- but the general public is starved for color in late winter and early spring. People want a bunch of daffodils when the air is still cold and ice is still likely, and a daffodil that blooms a month before other daffodils is doubly welcome.
But 'Ceylon' is a very early daffodil, and you might think it would be ideal for the cut-flower trade. It has the great texture, and could certainly be shipped with less damage than most daffodils. It also has a good firm bulb, a great healthy constitution, and its open flowers outlast almost any other daffodil in cultivation.
It has a fatal flaw -- not for the gardener, for whom it is flawless -- but for the commercial raiser of cut daffodils.
The blazing orange-red of its cup only develops after a day or two in the sun. If you cut 'Ceylon' in bud and open it indoors in a glass of water, you do not get the fiery cup.
There was once a time when daffodils for the cut-flower market were only cut when they approached perfection in the field (or greenhouse), but now it is common to cut flowers in bud, to open in water. It is easier to ship daffodils in bud than in full flower. There is less damage.
Thus a daffodil that only reaches perfection after a few days of development on the plant, after the bloom has opened, is at a disadvantage compared with other daffodils that do not improve at all.
Another thing: No daffodil lasts more than two or three days in water, after it is bought as a cut flower.
A clump of 'Ceylon' may last in bloom 29 days outdoors. Not each flower, but in a clamp of 20 flowers, some opening a bit later than the others, the color may last in the garden for a month.
But this is no disadvantage if it is cut and sold at a shop. No cut daffodil is going to last three weeks (as an individual flower of 'Ceylon' may do in an open garden), so that enormous garden advantage is irrelevant to the florist.
It does a great flower like 'Ceylon' no particular good to have won the highest awards of daffodil societies, and it does the flower no good to be obviously superior in beauty, lasting power and color in the garden if it is at a disadvantage in the cut-flower trade.
A red and yellow daffodil much sold here in recent years is 'Red Rascal,' which has a large crinkled cup flushed with fiery orange-red. It blooms, with me, after 'Ceylon' and is completely withered two weeks before 'Ceylon.' Furthermore, in some seasons it does not color well ('Ceylon' always does) and it does not stand up to heat as well as 'Ceylon' or, for that matter, to wind.
In addition to all these shortcomings, it is nowhere nearly so beautiful, even at its best, as 'Ceylon' at its worst.
And yet you can buy it everywhere, while the great 'Ceylon' is sold mainly by daffodil specialists.
You might think that even if all this is so, still a store that sells only to home gardeners would offer 'Ceylon, since home gardeners do not care about anything except garden performance.
But these garden shops have to buy their bulbs from the great bulb-growing corporations, who do not offer them 'Ceylon' but only 'Scarlet O'Hara,' 'Red Rascal,' 'Scarlet Elegance' and so forth, all of them inferior flowers to 'Ceylon.'
Theoretically, garden centers in sophisticated towns like the capital, might survey the daffodil field, observe which daffodils are superior to others in vigor, beauty and garden worth, and stock them.
But even if they did, and even if the bulbs were correctly labeled (and they very commonly are mislabeled), they might find their customers completely seduced by daffodils that cost a dime less, or that look flashier in a color photograph.
When I was young, most towns had a seed company that gardeners knew they could depend on, not only for sound bulbs (and thank God you can still buy first-rate healthy superbly grown bulbs almost anywhere) but for the best varieties.
If old Zub-zub, say, told you, when you went in his store, that 'Beersheba' was the best low-priced white daffodil, you did well to listen to him. He knew what he was talking about.
If you ask now, Zub-zub's successor looks blank, perhaps in some doubt what the hell a daffodil is.
It is sometimes said, by the way, that customers mix up the batches of bulbs at seed stores in their pawing about.
This can happen. People change their minds in mid-purchase and stick the bulb back, perhaps in the wrong bin.
But if you buy several bulbs of "Pahiti' and they all turn out to be a grossly inferior flower of the same general type, that is not the result of customers mixing up the bulbs, but of the dealer selling the wrong thing.
A few years ago I bought 50 bulbs of 'Ceylon' from one of the most respected Dutch importers. Twenty-two of the bulbs proved to be other than 'Ceylon.' Nineteen were the lovely (if you like it, and I do) 'Double Event,' and three others were nice enough yellow daffodils but not what was ordered and paid for.
If the Dutch grower sends the wrong (mislabeled) bulb -- a thing unthinkable in the past -- it's hard to be indignant at the local retailer.
Once I bought a dozen 'Broadwater' from an American grower. They were all nice neat yellows, but not one of them was 'Broadwater.'
The way out of all of this will be dealt with in a later column. As usual, it will not be a question of money so much as pigheaded noble determination.