July 31, 2015

Variety of the Month: 'Thalia'

Narcissus thaliaSometimes known as the orchid daffodil, this pure white variety flowers later in the season with graceful, twisted petals and is scented. The twist in each petal is unique and gives the flower plenty of movement, reminiscent of gulls’ wings.

The petals are slightly reflexed, which betrays its parentage of Narcissus triandrus, but the rest of its ancestry is rather obscure. It was bred more than a century ago in the Netherlands and is still easy to find in garden centres today as dry bulbs. When creating his Writing Garden, in which the flowers are predominantly white, TV gardener Monty Don made this his variety of choice. It has a lightness and elegance to counter the brashness of the tulips with which it will be flowering in April.

If I could only have ten Desert Island Daffs, this would be one of them.

What a desert island that would be.


‘Thalia’ on DaffSeek

June 30, 2015

Variety of the Month: ‘Petit Four'

Narcissus Petit FourIt is now high summer, and time for a proper afternoon tea (if that's not too much in the heat we are currently experiencing in the UK). This eccentric variety of daff has all the saccharine colouration and delicate detail of the over-manicured cake that is its namesake.

It is a double, but not what most gardeners will think of as a double. The whole flower hasn't scrunched into a great pom-pom. Rather, what we find are six normal, well-behaved petals, surrounding a seemingly normal cup, containing a crammed mass of ruffled cup segments and even fine spears of white outer petal. It is incredible to first discover this bizarre form just when you think you have it all sussed.

While the outer petals stay white, the cup opens a warm yellow, before gradually turning a peach pink as the flower ages. If given a little protection from the sun, the result will be a confection of both colours.

The variety is fairly easy to source, and while this does seem to make a decent garden variety, I would be tempted to keep it for cutting to bring indoors. Something as unusual as this demands attention. Just don't trick yourself into thinking that it's good enough to eat.


'Petit Four' on DaffSeek

Happy Media – Standing Up For Science Workshop at Warwick

Sense About Science logoI first contacted the charity Sense About Science when I was still at school. Naturally, a boy still pending A-levels wasn’t of much use to an organisation operating primarily through career researchers, but they very politely added me to the mailing list and I kept an eye on what they were doing. Over the years, my involvement grew and I am now on their Plant Science Panel, but on Friday 26 June, I finally got to meet some of them, at a workshop devoted to standing up for science in the media.

I’ve long been concerned about how science is portrayed in the media, and had all but reached a point of dismissing any research reporting in the press and on TV as basically worthless. The day’s workshop has greatly turned that around.

There were maybe 30 delegates from universities around the country, including Oxford, Cambridge, Birmingham and Warwick. Perhaps there was the benefit of selection bias that people in the room were more likely to be motivated and outspoken, but there was a level of interaction in the room that is rare for student conferences and group work. It was a great atmosphere for exchanging ideas where nobody shied away from criticism.

First, we got to pick the brains of three scientists (Dr Jeremy Pritchard, Dr Deirdre Hollingsworth and Prof. Boris Gaensicke) who had all had experience of media exposure (and media exposure gone bad) to see how to handle people from the media, how to phrase things to avoid confusion and how to correct things when the reporters get it wrong. Prichard in particular was very animated, recounting how even his own spouse had stitched him up from a journalistic point of view. I started to get a sense of fairness from the whole affair – that there is a constant tug-of-war between the scientist eager to share their work and the press, looking to present it in the most eye-catching way.

The second session brought us two journalists. The first was Jane Symons, freelance health journalist who frequently publishes in The Sun. At first, I sensed a sacrificial lamb, but in fact she won me over with her candour. She told us that while it may not be best journalistic practice, she might hype a health story if it encourages readers to adopt a healthier lifestyle. She also scorned the habit of even the most prestigious broadsheets for unfair ‘balance’, saying [paraphrased] “Anti-vaccers and climate change denialists should not get to express an opinion – they are mad.” Beside her on the panel was Dr David Gregory-Kumar from BBC Midlands Today. I’ve already met one of his colleagues and it became clear to me that a common feature of their job is a wicked sense of humour. They’re perfectly suited to putting people at ease, which is extremely useful when trying to get the most out of the least natural interviewees. I still remember his biggest advice – don’t wear a “titty shirt”.

To round off the day, we heard more of the work of Sense About Science and their Voice of Young Science (VoYS) network from their reps, Victoria Murphy and Leah Fitzsimmons (respectively). They were joined by Dr Paul Sainsbury from the Society of Applied Microbiology and together they went through the processes of asking for evidence for a scientific claim in the public arena and how to angle a story to make it tantalising for publishers. With a better understanding of the work of VoYS, I felt much more inclined to get involved.

Overall, it was a day well spent. I hope that over time, Sense About Science gets to conduct more of these sorts of workshops, or even large-scale conferences. I would like to see far more career scientists not only trying to get their work more public appreciation, but also standing up for science when it is being presented to the public.


Please follow the links embedded in the post for the Twitter accounts of the people mentioned and websites of the organisations featured.

April 30, 2015

Variety of the Month: ‘Trilune’

Narcissus TriluneApril is definitely the month of bizarre daffs. The late-flowering species daffs have allowed breeders a wide palate with which to experiment, and perhaps none is more unusual than ‘Trilune’.

I’ve covered split corona daffs before on this blog, but they usually present a clearly six-segmented cup. This has just three segments, giving the impression of a three-bladed propeller. Or a radiation hazard symbol.

The variety was registered in 1983 in the Netherlands, but it was only four years ago that an all-white cultivar (‘Berri White’) of the same structure was registered (and 18,000 km away in New Zealand). Presumably it’s a rare event. Now all we need are the other colour combinations to complete a set.

It would be a hard variety to work with in a garden setting – it’s clearly meant for the show bench – but ‘Berri White’ (if you can afford it all the way from New Zealand) is the closest thing you’ll find to creating the illusion of a cupless daff, which could make an elegant addition to a planting scheme.

Narcissus ‘Trilune’ taught me to never say you’ve seen it all.


‘Trilune’ on DaffSeek

March 31, 2015

Variety of the Month: 'Fortune'

Narcissus FortuneA rather sad tale of success, hubris and downfall sits behind this classic variety – perhaps that should be ‘mixed fortunes.’

‘Fortune’ is on the surface a fairly unremarkable daff. It has yellow petals and a cup with a flush of orange. It caused a sensation when it came onto the market in 1917 for its high yields and good quality bulbs. The earliest bulbs sold for £50 each - £3,800 in today’s money. In 1937, Guy L. Wilson wrote of it, in the American Daffodil Year Book:

“No doubt Fortune will be planted by everyone when it becomes sufficiently moderate in prices. I do not know of any daffodil which has a more splendidly reliable constitution It makes a very fine firm healthy bulbs, and I have never heard of it being sick or sorry in any part of the world where it has been grown[.]”

He was certainly right on the first count – ‘Fortune’ established itself as a blockbuster variety, featuring in the stocks of a huge number of growers. Problems came in the latter part of the 20th Century, when ‘Fortune’ started getting a reputation for being sickly. Many stocks accumulated viruses and harvests became unreliable. The brittle leaves and stems could be decimated by wind, too, affecting growth. Many growers ditched their stock into hedgerows where they still grow to this day.

That’s not to say it’s gone for good – some growers still keep a stock ticking over as the variety forces well and enjoys decent bulb sales – the British public still remember it.


‘Fortune’ on DaffSeek

February 28, 2015

Variety of the Month: 'Scilly Valentine'

Narcissus Scilly ValentineI think it’s safe to go out again, now. I’ve never liked Valentine’s Day, whether I’m single or not. Fortunately trade is good for the scented narcissi companies of the Isles of Scilly, where the month of February is dominated by this variety – ‘Scilly Valentine’.

It isn't the sumptuous reds and pinks that we’ve come to expect from Valentine’s flowers, but the cheery yellow and orange, multi-headed blooms of this daffodil are better for brightening up the place in the dreary late winter months. What’s more, it has a strong scent of jasmine and Plumeria.

‘Scilly Valentine’ is a tazetta hybrid, so it won’t do well in gardens where frost is likely, but the climate of the Scillies suits it perfectly. Best to leave them to do the growing and just order in bunches of this bloom for your loved one. Just be sure to give them the spelling of the variety. Nobody wants to be called silly on a romantic occasion.


‘Scilly Valentine’ on DaffSeek

Scented narcissi for sale at Scillyflowers.com

January 31, 2015

Variety of the Month: 'Rijnveld's Early Sensation'

Narcissus Rijnvelds Early SensationWell, what more do I need to tell you? It was named after the registering company 'F. Rijnveld & Sons', and, being especially early, caused a sensation when it was exhibited.

Oh, alright. It was registered in 1956, but, contrary to what you might expect, was not bred in the Netherlands. The company is obviously Dutch in origin (and pronounced 'rine-feld'), but the daff is a UK-bred cultivar. I've said it's early - it really is early - kicking off the outdoor cut flower market even as early as December, which just about makes up for its short stature and difficult cropping. In terms of its appearance, it's nothing special, either. The name 'Rijnveld' is a bit of a mouthful, so it may simply be referred to as 'Early Sensation', 'January', or, I've no idea why, 'Crocodils'.

It has had a few notable descendents - especially 'Tamara', but so far nothing has stepped forward to take its place as the earliest commerical variety on the block.


'Rijnveld's Early Sensation' on Daffseek

December 31, 2014

Variety of the Month: 'Season's Greetings'

I hope you're all having a merry Christmas.Narcissus Season

The choice of this variety shouldn't need any explanation - it takes its name from the fact that it flowers between Christmas and New Year. It's a dwarf variety with fine foliage and clusters of small, white flowers with a very festive look about them. It was originally named 'Christmas Joy'.

'Season's Greetings' is a new (2012) variety from Californian breeder Harold Koopowitz, who specialises in breeding from the unusual species daffodils. This variety has a lot of character from Narcissus jonquilla and N. viridiflorus, both of which produce small, delicate flowers.

I hope you all have a happy and safe 2015.


'Season's Greetings' on DaffSeek
Buy 'Season's Greetings' at Ringhaddy Daffodils

November 30, 2014

Variety of the Month: 'Paperwhite'

Narcissus Paperwhite GrandiflorusI’m your biggest fan,
Your flowers are so white and lacy
papyr-, papyrace(us)

Narcissus papyraceus, more commonly known as ‘Paperwhite’, is a white, multi-headed and strongly scented daff traditionally grown for Christmas. If planted now indoors, they could easily be in flower by Baby Jesus’ birthday. They’re native to the Mediterranean, so they don’t need a cold spell to spur the bulbs into flowering. The downside is that they can’t tolerate much frost. They’re not really a single variety at all, and the cultivar you’re likely to find for sale is ‘Ziva’.

They have an incredibly strong scent that’s often overpowering. I personally don’t like it much, and think it smells like toilet cleaner. However, the flowers are fantastic and look very festive.

Gin and PaperwhitesIndoor forced paperwhites do have a reputation to grow far too tall and floppy. Thankfully, there is a solution. This paper, published a few years ago and my favourite paper of all time, shows that if their water is spiked with 4% alcohol, their growth is reduced to a nice height (you do have to grow them in sand or gravel – not soil or compost). This doesn’t just work with technical grade alcohol – you can do it at home with vodka, gin, whiskey etc., but not wine or beer. It seems even daffs like a drink at Christmas.


'Paperwhite Grandiflorus' on DaffSeek
‘Ziva’ on DaffSeek

October 31, 2014

Variety of the Month: ‘Ice Emerald’

Narcissus Ice EmeraldThis article was meant to go out on my birthday, being my choice of favourite daff, but as it was, I ended up running up and down a field, placing out canes for my field experiments, which are now well underway.

I find there’s something captivating about white flowers. They do brighten up a garden, and look especially good in evening light. ‘Ice Emerald’ is pure white, save for a green ‘eye’ in the centre of the cup, which is truly striking. It does give the flower a coolness that its name implies. I’m sure the last thing the readers of this blog want, as the cold of the oncoming winter begins to be felt, is a daff that reminds them of this, but since this should flower in late March, it shouldn’t offset the warmth of spring, but rather create a calming influence in a garden, compared to the brash yellows of most daffs. I'd also rate it as an orchid-like cut flower.

The variety is another newcomer to the scene, introduced by Niall Watson of Ringhaddy Daffodils in Northern Ireland a couple of years ago. It goes to show that the subtle differences between varieties can add up to make something which, if not absolutely unique, can still be strikingly distinctive.


‘Ice Emerald’ on DaffSeek
‘Ice Emerald’ for sale at Ringhaddy Daffodils

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