Saturday, 20 February 2016

historic daffodils

It's all go today.  I've just been to a Suffolk Plant Heritage talk on early daffodil varieties, and I'm about to go out to the music society jazz concert.

Suffolk Plant Heritage goes from strength to strength.  The hall where they meet was full to practically bursting today, and they've nearly sold out of tickets for next month's celebrity lecture with Fergus Garrett.  It goes to show that people will still join clubs and societies, if you put on a good enough programme, and especially with the added incentives of an interesting sales stall and nice cake.

The early daffodil specialist keeps them as a labour of love.  He and his wife sell a few surplus bulbs, but the returns are nowhere near commercial if they were to cost their own labour at anything like a realistic level.  Their chief aim, he admitted, was to learn more about plants they are both fascinated by, and to try and restore their rightful names to at least some old varieties, and keep them in cultivation.  His explanation of how one sets about researching historic daffodils would serve as a case study on a garden restoration course.  You scan old commercial catalogues and magazines, pray to find an historic garden where the owner at the time kept a planting list, and pick the brains of by now elderly retired growers and owners about what they were growing or helping to plant decades ago.  You take everything you are told with a huge pinch of salt.  If you can find a collaborator from the land owning classes so much the better, as they may gain admission to houses with big old gardens that don't open to the public

One problem with identifying daffodils surviving in long established gardens is that they are rarely labelled, since they were generally grown in drifts in grass.  And overcrowded, starved, excessively wet or dry clumps may have atypical flowers, longer or narrower than the type.  And apart from the tendency of owners and their ancient relatives to misremember the identities of bulbs they helped plant in the 1930s, nursery men have been selling mislabelled plants as long as there's been a nursery trade. When 'King Alfred' is new and wildly popular, the temptation to sell other bright yellow trumpet daffodils as 'King Alfred' is there.

The daffodil grower and his wife had an increasing rump of plants that they weren't entirely sure what to do with, because they couldn't attach an historic name to them with certainty, and couldn't give them a new name because they almost certainly had one already, which must stand by the rules of nomenclature.  One solution was to hang on to a core holding of the variety, in the hopes of identifying it at some point, and sell the surplus under a trade name, which could be given the true name if it was ever discovered.  I thought that sounded entirely reasonable, but then I am not very good at names for a member of Plant Heritage.  Obviously I'd rather know what things are, because then I can discuss my experience of growing them and how well they did in my conditions with other people.  But as long a plant is interesting and healthy my pleasure in it is not much diminished by the fact that I don't know quite what it is.  From that point of view I lack the collector's instinct, but given the amount of self seeding that goes on in our garden most of the Dierama and Pulmonaria don't have proper names anyway.

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