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King Alfred’s name still golden in North America


Celeste with camilla and King Alfred daffodils in Sarah's garden, Portland, Oregon

We lost a very dear friend, Sarah, last year. Saturday we arrived at her garden to help her husband give it a little tender attention. It was a soft, wet day with camillas, daffodils, and daphne in bloom. “King Alfred daffodils,” said Sarah’s husband, Jeff.

The King Alfred is an example of the delicious complexity created by Brits. Gaze for a moment on the American Daffodil Society Data Bank, which lists some 14,548 registered daffodil names dating back to the 1800s, and shows that 5,421 were bred in the British Isles; 3,267 in Australia; 2,033 in New Zealand; 1,905 in the United States; and 1,422 in Holland. Does this strike you as slightly staggering? Fourteen thousand five hundred and forty-eight registered daffodil names? Do you know any daffodil breeders? They have certainly been working under the radar as far as I am concerned.

King Alfred was a huge advance because it was the first tetraploid daffodil, that is, it had 28 chromosomes. (Yes, this was news to me, too.) Tetraploids represent the optimum characteristics for size and vigour in daffodils. They are brilliantly golden with large trumpets and deeply frilled mouths.

According to John Hunter, a noted breeder of daffodils, and the historian of the Daffodil Society of New Zealand (who knew such an organization existed?), the daffodils that Americans insist on calling “King Alfreds” are usually newer, better varieties of the old King. The few remaining true bulbs are reserved for a small commercial trade in Europe. But as many daffodil breeders have observed, “For some unknown reason, North Americans won’t give up on the name King Alfred”.

Surely the reason is obvious.

Sarah, a brilliant woman and a wonderful teacher, mother and friend, loved Britain. She and Jeff spent a year teaching in England. She brought back many flower seeds and bulbs, and I have a hunch she planted the real King Alfred.