AMONG THE various things to drive a gardener crazy is the promise to tell somebody about a certain plant and then forget who it was.
"Did you ask about pig-lilies in Africa?" you may begin, with the person you thought had asked about them a month ago.
"No," they always say, looking at you as if a straitjacket were in order.
Be that as it may, somebody in Virginia did ask, most urgently, about the old double daffodil that you see sometimes in pastures, sometimes at the edge of hedgerows, sometimes along the shoulder of a farm road.
It could be the old Codlins and Cream or the old Butter and Eggs, of course, or even the relatively modern "Mary Copeland," which has a tough constitution, especially in the South.
But no. They described it all too well. Some years it does not bloom well, the buds open only partially. In other years they open almost all the way but the petals never stretch out, but remain green. In yet other years the buds open all the way, a rich tawny yellow, and in exceptional years these flowers are almost globular and distinctly on the large side.
Usually the stems are no more than nine inches or so, but in exceptional years they may be twice that, or more.
This is almost certainly -- I toss in the "almost" for modesty's sake -- the old double daffodil called "van Sion" which first flowered in England about the year 1620.
It reached America probably in the same century, and is believed to be a daffodil mentioned in correspondence in 1730 between the Philadelphia botanist John Bartram and a friend in England.
It is I believe immortal; I never heard of anybody losing it, once they had it in their garden, though Frank Galsworthy almost lost his when some dense trees almost shaded it out. He crawled in there, rescued a few weak shoots, and in a few years found them well established once again in their new site in the sun.
Earth-moving machinery accounts for a good many of the daffodils along country roads and in old residential subdivisions in cities. I have several times seen the exquisite Narcissus tenuoir in such places, and in parts of Virginia you see the old Narcissus pseudo-narcissus where bulldozers have scooped them up and plopped them down.
But "van Sion" owes its persistence primarily to a superb constitution. It evidently never gets basal rot. It does seed, though gardeners rarely notice the pods, and if these are scattered in a grassy place they often sprout to establish new colonies. I have never known it to seed, myself, in my former garden where it had sat in fact clumps for half a century.
Daffodil buffs of today may find it hard to believe that as late as the 1930s this old daffodil was sold as a garden variety in seed stores, along with such other ancient creatures as "Emperor" and "Pheasants Eye," though come to think of it the lastnamed sort is still sold.
I do not consider "van Sion" worth growing in the garden, unless there is room for 200 other sorts of daffodil, and this old one is desired simply for sentiment's sake.
The 17th-century herbalist Parkison mentions in his wonderful book, the Paradisus that "we first had it from Vincent Sion, borne in Flanders, dwelling on the Bank side (London) in his lives' time but now dead, an industrious and worthy lover of faire flowers who cherished it in his garden for many yeares, without bearing of any flowers until the yeare 1620; that having flowred with him (and hee not knowing of whom he had received it, nor having ever seene the like flower before) he sheweth it to Mr. John de Franqueville, of whom he supposed he had received it (for beyond the Sea he never received any) who findeth it to bee a kinde never seene or knowne to us before, caused him to respect it the more, as it as well worthy.
"And Mr. George Wilmer of Stratford Bowe Esquire in his lives time having likewise received it of him (as did my selfe also) would needes appropriate it to himselfe, as if he were the first founder thereof, and call it by his owne name Wilmer's double daffodil, which since hath so continued."
But in the centuries since, the name Wilmer's Double Daffodil has virtually disappeared, and it is almost universally known as "van Sion" in honor of old Vincent Sion who has meanwhile sprouted a van to his name.
The botanist Haworth named it Telamonius plenus, by which name it is also well known. But in Tennessee and Virginia I never heard it called anything but "van Sion."
The flower resembles a fairly mad and electrified giant dandelion. It is said cattle never eat it and of course rodents leave all narcissi alone, and I never knew the various hounds to eat it, though over the years they sampled a surprising assortment of flowers. Dogs, in my experience, tend to prefer white flowers such as gardenias and white water lilies. Not many dogs eat flowers, but if you raise the question at any good-sized gathering, you will be surprised to find somebody or other has or had a mutt with a floral palate.
The old "van Sion" has been used in quite recent years to breed double daffodils in New Zealand, I have read, and that most distinguished Irish breeder of white daffodils, the late Guy Wilson, while never using so outmoded a flower in his breeding, yet always kept a few clumps in his garden for memory's sake, and it was a rare year he did not comment on its blooming, usually about the first of April.
So much for this old flower. I imagine the next time I see the Virginia fellow who asked me about it he will reproach me for never letting him know.
Eventually I shall certainly run into him and his wife again. I do not now remember which Virginians they were, but in the nature of things people always, without any exception, show up in due time, especially if you have failed to keep your promise to let them know about that daffodil or the pig-lily or whatnot.