Daffodil breeding in Cornwall by Andrew Ormerod

Enthusiasts have been breeding daffodils for 300 years and Cornwall has a long heritage of daffodil breeding.  P.D. Williams, who lived in Lanreth near St Keverne, was one of the significant early breeders.

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P.D. Williams

He produced ‘Carlton’, once the most important yellow daffodil; it was at one time the most numerous cloned plant in the world.  Renewed interest has been shown in ‘Carlton’ but this time its bulbs grown as a source of galanthamine, a drug used to treat Alzheimer’s disease.  One of the most famous daffodil to be bred in Cornwall is the miniature ‘Tete-a-Tete’, bred by Alec Gray, who lived in West Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.  This variety is commonly sold as a potted houseplant.  Alec was the foremost breeder of miniature daffodils.  This is the most widely grown miniature daffodil in the world, grown by the billions, notably in Holland, where the sandy soil suits its mass cultivation better than heavier land in Cornwall.

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Barbara Fry

A lot of new varieties were bred at Rosewarne Experimental Station (now Duchy College, Rosewarne) in the 1960’s and 70’s by Barbara Fry.  A remarkable lady whose work has made a contribution to Cornish Agriculture and to the variety of daffodils that gardeners can grow at home.  Barbara had previously worked at Trenoweth Flower Farm on the Lizard and was involved with seedling daffodils. She would have encountered the well-known variety “St Keverne”, raised in Cornwall and registered by M.P. Williams.  (P.D. William’s nephew).  This daffodil played an important role as a parent in the Rosewarne breeding program, since it contributed basal rot resistance to the offspring.  Basal rot is a major problem for commercial and amateur daffodil growers alike.  Barbara also created a series of early flowering daffodils for mainland Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly,  which allowed growers to produce a continuous supply of early cut flowers during the profitable period.  Some of these new varieties raised for mainland Cornwall, such as ‘Tamara’, used the remarkable early flowering ‘Rijnveld’s Early Sensation’ (RES) as a parent.

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Early days at the Eden Project a sequential display of commercial daffodil varieties selected for cut flower production including RES and including early varieties bred by Rosewarne.

As an aside, growers used to wait in anticipation to see if RES would flower before Christmas, but in the last ten years such early varieties have flowered before the end of November.  Is this an indication of climate change?  Interesting the shift in flowering has been much more extreme with the early varieties than the later ones.

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Ron Scamp in his trials field with a range of daffodils.

Ron Scamp, who learnt much about the art of breeding daffodils from his uncle Dan du Plessis, has been carrying on the tradition of daffodil breeding.  Ron has concentrated on breeding daffodils for the show bench and for the discerning gardener.  He tries to achieve perfection in shape, colour and form in each class of daffodil exhibited.  It started as a hobby but now he is a full-time daffodil breeder.  He has to be very patient because it takes about four to six years to get daffodils to flower.

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Eden diploma students on a visit to Ron Scamp’s breeding field in 2002

Thanks to Ron Scamp, Jim Hosking, Andrew Tompsett and Philip McMillan Browse for their advise relating to Cornish daffodils. 

This article was adapted from one originally published in Eden Project friends magazine in 2003.

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Andrew Tompsett among other things is associated with research relating to the flower industry in Cornwall has been involved for several years in trialling commercial daffodils for basal rot resistance – including trialling daffodil varieties in the Isles of Scilly.

He has written a history of the Cornish and Isles of Scilly daffodil industry called Golden Harvest published by Alison Hodge.   Photo Keith Martin at an Eden Project Friends event.

©  Andrew Ormerod 2013

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About cornucopiaalchemy

Dr. Andrew Ormerod has 14 years experience working as the Economic Botanist at the Eden Project - researching topical stories, artefacts, ethnobotanical inks, catering and retail links to exhibits. Previously I was involved with plant breeding and plant tissue culture working on a range of crops including winter cauliflowers, agricultural lupins, vining peas, wheat and barley and coconuts. I am now freelance and am interested in opportunities for lecturing; writing articles; consultancy linked to development of botanic gardens for crops based exhibits; supply chain work for unusual food or non-food crops with interesting stories about plants and people attached to them.
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