I’ve been to a fair few flower shows in my time, but only one bloom has bewitched me sufficiently to force me to cross the line from observer to participant. A rose? An orchid? A lily, perhaps?
No, my siren is the daffodil.
This may seem an odd revelation to those who think the daffodil little more than a common yellow trumpet of roadside and field, but no bloom has transformed itself from ugly duckling to sleek swan quite as fully as this one, with the guiding hand of besotted breeders.
It is hard to say which variety, exactly, turned me into a daffodil junkie, but I could name a few suspects. There was the time I purchased Red Rim, derived from the poet’s daffodils that see out the season in their bone-white petals and red eyes. Red Rim boasts an orange-yellow cup, rimmed in a rich scarlet. The petals — fanciers call them perianth segments — are thick and white, and so broad that they overlap. It was bred by a clergyman in England in the 1920s, named the Rev. G.H. Engleheart. One imagines him quietly distracted during Easter services, the breeder’s busy season.
Next came Dove Wings, a dainty thing with a comically long trumpet and petals that are swept back. The perianth is white but the trumpet yellow, a dramatic color combination for a variety related to a daffodil tribe called triandrus. A breeder named C.F. Coleman brought the world Dove Wings in 1949, a time when the world needed all the doves it could get.
My narcissomania was secured with the purchase of Songket. This is a variety of large-cupped daffodil with broad, thick white petals and a ruffled cup that is a creamy pink at its rim. The lower cup, though, is white and then glows a minty green. The whole thing has a spicy fragrance. This confection was created by a breeding wizard named Brian Duncan, who lives in Northern Ireland.
The thing is, when you plant these jewels in the fall, the bulbs look little different from those of something as common as Ice Follies or Carlton. You grow them the same way: Bury them a few inches deep in garden soil in a sunny spot. The following March and April, up they come, ready to change your life. (Daffodils live forever, unless the bulbs sit in waterlogged soil during summer dormancy.)
“Most people are just floored by the variety, the color and form,” said Kathy Welsh, a daffodil grower in Oakton and, until last weekend, president of the American Daffodil Society. “I took a bunch into work, and people were just shocked” by the exhibition varieties.
The society held its annual show a week ago in Towson. The weekend before, members of the Washington Daffodil Society held theirs at Brookside Gardens in Wheaton. (Joining a club is the best way to find sources of show daffodils.)
You will have divined by now that there is no one daffodil. Starting with the 50 wild species of narcissus, generations of breeders have created many thousands of named varieties, each different in some fashion. To bring order from this chaos, the daffodil world lumps the bulbs into 13 types, or divisions.
Everyone has preferences. I find the trumpet daffodils about as subtle as a Mack truck, but I love the large-cupped and small-cupped varieties because the scale of the cup — or corona — to the rest of the flower seems right, and the daffodil retains the flower’s iconic, natural look. They have six perianth segments: three inner ones, called “minors” because they are a little smaller, and the outer “majors.”
When these petals are manipulated — they yield in an expert groomer’s hands — so that the uppermost major and the lowermost minor are aligned vertically with the stem, and when the segments are flattened into a single plane, the flower becomes an object of living sculpture.
On the other hand, I consider a double-flowered daffodil to be a flower caught in an explosion, though many daffodil fanciers adore them.
Both triandrus and cyclamineus hybrids share the loveliness of a wild daffodil, small nodding flowers with petals that are swept back, a trait more exaggerated in the cyclamineus types. Jonquils are small and clustered; I appreciate them most for their reliable fragrance.
What makes a great exhibition daffodil? “It has to be eye-catching and pleasing,” said Bob Spotts, a daffodil hybridizer in Oakley, Calif. “It doesn’t have to be bright, but it does have to be pleasing.”
It also has to have symmetry, so that if you held a mirror to its top half, or right half, it would look like a balanced whole. Color is an obvious goal of breeders, but so is producing a bloom with petal thickness, “substance” and form — it should reflect the archetypal shape of its division.
These technicalities direct the toil of the hybridizer, who takes the pollen from one daffodil to fertilize another. The resulting seedlings are grown for at least five years before they begin to bloom and can be evaluated.
“It’s fairly easy for a hybridizer to get color, to get form, to get a good strong multiplying plant, but it’s a devil to get all three in one package,” said Steve Vinisky, a breeder in Sherwood, Ore.
In 26 years, he has raised more than 30,000 seedlings to flowering age, but he has registered fewer than 70 of his crosses. “That’s a staggeringly bad percentage,” he said.
One of his favorites is a large-cupped daffodil he named Amity Angel. Both the perianth and cup are a glistening, snowy white and appear to be candied. The base of the cup glows green. Most bright whites open an ivory color and let the sun bleach them a bit, but this variety is born gleaming, Vinisky said.
Perusing his Web site, I see that he has other large-cupped varieties that I covet. Salmon Circle is white-petaled with a small, bowl-shaped cup with a distinct salmon-pink edge. The perianth segments are broad and overlap generously.
Pink Revival is white with a more orange-salmon hue to its pink cup. (Yes, you are right, I am fixated by pink-cupped, white daffodils, but what a lovely rut to be in.) I am enthralled by one of Vinisky’s newest introductions, Heart Fire. The perianth has loads of substance, and the cup, squarish in form, is a deep, rich salmon pink. It is by far his most expensive daffodil, at $125 a bulb. Amity Angel, by contrast, is $20 and Pink Revival is $38. These beauties represent years of work and are not raised with the economies of scale enjoyed by Dutch growers, who grow old garden varieties by the hundreds of thousands.
In spite of his eye for breeding large-cupped daffodils, Vinisky’s interest is broad, and his catalogue spans the range of daffodil types, many of them introductions from other breeders in this small world.
They include Spotts, who lives in California’s Central Valley and has raised some fine crosses. One of his best known is Kokopelli, a yellow jonquil. Vinisky describes it as “floriferous as all get-out and perfectly formed” with a “superb, light sweet fragrance.”
Spotts, though, is making a name for himself with a variety he has dubbed Mesa Verde, which the American Daffodil Society has listed in Division 12 — for “daffodil cultivars which do not fit the definition of any other division.” Mesa Verde has a perianth that is a smooth, light green, like the flesh of a melon, and the dainty cup is a ruffled, darker green with a yellow rim. That isn’t the only novelty. I asked Spotts about this creation, which he made using an obscure green daffodil found wild in the dusty hills of Spain and Morocco. “Normally,” he said, “daffodils in the garden last 10 to 14 days. This lasts three to four weeks. In the sun, it fades, it goes from an avocado green to yellow, finally, with a slight infusion of green.”
Vinisky called its longevity “a game changer” for the daffodil.
I am also intrigued by another of Spotts’s varieties, Spider Woman. It is classified as a small-cupped narcissus, with an orange corona and a yellow perianth. The petals still overlap but are long and tapered. It has the type of eye-catching appeal that seems destined to make it a show bench favorite.
Spotts, then already a daffodil exhibitor, turned to breeding about 30 years ago when he met a daffodil hybridizer, Harold Koopowitz, on an airplane. “He said, ‘Have you started hybridizing yet?’ ” Spotts, then in his 40s, said he hadn’t. Koopowitz knew this was a game you had to get into relatively young, given how long it takes for a seedling to bloom. “He said, ‘You better get going.’ ”
Vinisky, who was a globe-trotting executive for a computer game company, had his epiphany when he called his daughter, then 7, from a hotel in Brazil, and she wondered if she could remember what he looked like. He moved his family from California to Oregon, where today he can be found in his three acres of daffodil seedlings, making crosses that one day may end up in a garden or daffodil show near you.
In spite of his thousands of handmade seedlings, he knows he is not playing God so much as trying to find that perfect daffodil from a fraction of the available genetic pairings. “It’s a celestial crapshoot,” he said.
Adrian Higgins is a Washington Post staff writer. To comment on this story, send an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.