It’s bulb planting time, and during the recent Garden Fling in Philadelphia, I had a conversation with Victoria Summerly, British author and journalist, about the ubiquitous Tête-à-tête daffodil and how bulbs and plants can disappear from the trade. When she cleverly termed Tête-à-tête ‘the daffodil that ate the world,’ I pressed her to write up her thoughts for GardenRant readers. I am thrilled she is joining us this week in her debut GuestRant. – MW
As a harbinger of early spring, ‘Tête-à-tête’ daffodils are hard to beat. I feel a certain patriotic loyalty towards them, because they were bred in Cornwall by an English horticulturalist called Alec Gray, but it has been a few years since I was able to look at them without feeling a certain amount of irritation.
It’s not the flowers themselves. They are perfect miniature daffodils – golden-yellow on strong stems with green foliage – and they flower early (beginning of March), they naturalise well, they are reliable, the blooms last a long time, and they can be forced for indoor bowls.
They generally have two or even three flowers per stem, and these flowers look as if they are chatting to each other, hence the rather charming name Tête-à-tête (pronounced TETT-ah-TETT), which is a French phrase meaning a private conversation — or, literally translated, head-to-head.
Yes, as flowering bulbs they are great. But this is the daffodil that ate the world. In early spring, at every garden centre, in every street market, florist or even at specialist plant fairs, you will now see hundreds of ‘Tête-à-tête’ daffodils for sale.
It came as a surprise to learn that this cultivar was bred by Gray during the 1940s, because it is only in the past 20 or 30 years that they have taken over the bulb market.
Experienced gardeners often bemoan the plethora of “compact” (if you are being polite) or “stunted” (if you are being rude) cultivars that arrive in the garden centres with increasing regularity.
It is tempting to put this down to the fact that people have smaller gardens, or balconies instead of gardens. The truth is that smaller varieties make life much easier for the commercial growers. It’s nothing to do with supplying public demand, but everything to do with how many pots they can get on a Danish (or Dutch) trolley, which are used around the world for the mass transportation of plants.
Think about it. If you can put 100 plants in the same space that you would normally put 50 plants, and sell them at the same price, you are doubling your profits per square foot overnight.
Add to this the fact that Tête-à-tête flowers early, so it provides a great display – which as any garden centre owner will tell you is doubly attractive to shoppers – and the result is: ka-ching!
What’s the problem with that, you may ask. The growers get their money and we get great flowers. Well, here’s the thing: there are thousands of narcissi – officially 27,000 different species and varieties. The Royal Horticultural Society lists 13 different horticultural divisions: Trumpet, Large-cupped, Tazetta, Cyclamineus, etc etc.
Of these, only 500 varieties are in commercial production. Many cultivars have disappeared completely, and as someone who likes to be able to choose what to plant instead of being dictated to by the big commercial growers, this is both heartbreaking and frustrating.
When I moved to my garden in the Cotswolds in 2012, I inherited a clump of daffodils which I thought were very pretty. They are a delicate primrose colour, and the shallow cup is edged in orange which fades into rich yellow at the base.
I had no way of knowing exactly what variety they were and the nearest I could find was a daffodil called ‘Bath’s Flame’, named after the city of Bath. These were available from Shipton Bulbs, who specialised in heritage bulbs, and I bought some.
‘Bath’s Flame’ was bred by the Reverend George Engleheart at his home in Wiltshire in 1913. He was one of the great British daffodil breeders, and it is said that parishioners might arrive at church on Sunday to find a notice on the door stating: “No service today – working with daffodils”.
It is now extremely difficult to buy bulbs of ‘Bath’s Flame’. You might find it on nursery websites, but it is usually listed as out of stock. It has disappeared in just the last 10 years.
Alec Gray did not breed ‘Tête-à-tête’ because he wanted to swamp the market with a miniature daffodil. Indeed, he reportedly produced Tête-à-tête by accident when he was trying to breed a long-stemmed daffodil for the cut-flower market in Cornwall.
However, he went on to produce several other small varieties. Some of these, such as ‘Minnow’ and ‘Elka’ are still widely available. But others, such as ‘Segovia’, which again I bought only 10 years ago for my garden, or ‘Jumblie’ are now difficult to find.
So next time you are thinking of investing in some ‘Tête-à-tête’, look at what else is available. If only for the sake of men like Alec Gray and George Engleheart, who devoted their lives to breeding new plants not because they were going to be commercially successful, but simply because they were beautiful and different.
Five alternatives to ‘Tête-à-tête’:
‘Pueblo’ – opens soft yellow and matures to cream. Fragrant
‘Elka’ – white petals with pale yellow trumpet that fades to white as it matures.
‘Baby Boomer’ – distinctive bright yellow narcissus with up to five heads a stem. Fragrant.
‘Suzy’ – yellow petals with wide flaring orange cups. Fragrant.
‘Toto’ – creamy white, slightly reflexed petals with pale yellow trumpet.