Clay Higgins, New Jersey

A Beginning in Hybrdizing

October 13, 2015

Categories: American Daffodil Society, General, Hybridizer, Hybridizing

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A Beginning in Hybridizing
By Clay Higgins

Harold Koopowitz has written several articles in the Daffodil Journal and the RHS Journal on hybridizing that I have found as both interesting and informative. These few paragraphs are inspired by Harold’s article in the September 2015 “The Daffodil Journal.” I started hybridizing the first couple years after I got into showing daffodils but had no local mentor as there were no hybridizers of note in the Washington DC area (the exception was Bill Pannil who lived more in Florida than Virginia). My only contact with anyone was the new hybridizer’s robin led by Laverne Brusven of Montana. Robins are fine, however, I needed to be showed as I am a visual learner and a practical application person.

So I learned from mistakes those first few years. Most of my original hybridized seed never germinated because I put them in pots and only after I ran out of my few pots did I put some in the ground. My pots were a disaster as I was spending 12 to 14 hours a day either at work or commuting to work and all my pots dried up and died. My few remaining seed in the ground made for little progress.

It seems that in the early years of my hybridizing I was so surprised just to find that seed developed from my crosses that to some extent that satisfied my desire to hybridize. With the advent of the Daffnet, in which I have been on since 1996 or 1997 when there were only 25 of us on the net, I started seeing posting on planting daffodils. Everyone put the seeds in pots. My first few years using pots were a disaster and I started using a cross between what one of my favorite daffodil persons from Pennsylvania told me he did and common sense. I killed a lot of seed before I learned what works best for me is to plant the daffodils in the ground using a furrow about ½ inch deep and covering the seed with a potting mix that equals parts peat and vermiculite. (I was surprised that the Master Gardener Handbook in NC recommends the same procedure for planning small vegetable garden seeds.) I add a light coat of pine straw for mulch and get excellent germination that way. Many will disagree with me, but my response is for you to find a system that works for you in your growing conditions and if it works stay with it.

I loved to show so much that I made bad choices as I keep my best daffodils for the show and only hybridized with the ones that were not show worthy. My bad. Bad daffodils do not produce exciting new hybrids, just more bad daffodils. My ‘Carlton’ and ‘Dutch Masters’, N. obvallaris, etc., resulting seedlings was more of the same, not show worthy hybrids. Somewhere in about my fourth year of hybridizing I read an article on a website where a couple of noted hybridizers were stating that they made the same mistakes as I did when they first started and had to basically start all over on their hybridizing program using the very best daffodils crossed with the very best.

I did the same thing. I started trying to produce the division 2W-O, or 2Y-O that I enjoyed so much. I really like division 3 daffodil and poets, however, I seem to have a hard time setting seed on the division 3s and 9s. For some reason I also started trying to hybridize with miniatures. It was about there that Graham Fleming of Australia started helping me by sending me written documents and telling me about which daffodils were best to use, which ones were fertile and which ones were “mules” (infertile). This was all by email and for a while there I was thinking that Graham and I were monopolizing the email system between down-under and North America. Graham also told me to read the book by John W. Blanchard. “NARCISSUS” A Guide to Wild Daffodils. I had a copy published in 1990 and had read it once before. However, Graham told me to read it to understand the relationship of the various species daffodils and the weather and terrain in which they grew in the wild. From that study I begin to understand where daffodils originated, the natural daffodil families, the natural crosses, which ones that if crossed would make mules, and the conditions that best suited the growing conditions of the daffodils in the wild. I begin to understand something about species daffodils and how the garden hybrids developed.

That’s also when I begin my experiments with N. bulbocodiums, N. jonquilla, N. triandrus. N. tazetta, was to tender for my Maryland growing conditions and since I moved to more ideal climate for tazetta in Northeastern North Carolina I have not developed a desire to go that direction, yet. Another side effect is that in my current location it is too dry for Division 9 daffodils as they need some moisture in the summer. Here in Northeastern North Carolina there is no moisture in the soil over the summer.

I found that N. jonquilla is so easy to set seed. As with all daffodils N. jonquilla has both male and female parts. At first I thought I was really doing something until I saw that the N. jonquilla that I didn’t try to pollinate set as much seed as the ones that I did. I learned that N. jonquilla is a notorious self-seeder because the stigma and anthers are together in the cup. To pollinate a jonquil you have to be careful and get to the stigma before the pollen on the anthers mature. One has to open the cup to expose the stigma, which is ready to be pollinated as soon as the flower opens. Yes I tear the flower open to accomplish the exposure of the stigma and the anthers. The pollen will have to mature for a few until it gets “fluffy” before it can be used to pollinate. When making a cross, don’t accidentally pollinate the stigma with the pollen from itself. I created a lot of N. jonquilla type daffodils before I learned to do it right.

There is no way that I can ever thank Graham Fleming for the patience and friendship that he extended to me during our first years on email. After Graham’s help is when I started having some hybridizing success, regardless as to how trivial it has been. Graham is a great hybridizing mentor. Even though I have registered a few daffodil of my own and some for Graham Fleming’s, I find that the art of hybridizing is a continuous learning experience. I have a feeling that I will never consider myself to have learned it all and be a master myself. I learn from all the articles on hybridizing that I have read and I truly thank Harold for my learning experiences reading his articles. A second source of daffodil information and learning is the RHS Journal that I get and look forward to each year.

It has been the hybridizing and watching my “children” grow and bloom that has kept me into daffodils. I have had success with the American Bred Collections and with the larger collections with my hybrids. That includes a large number of Rose and mini Rose Ribbons. There are some disappointments but there is also a lot of pleasure in hybridizing. All serious daffodil growers should try their hand at hybridizing.

I know that I keep hounding ADS to publish more articles for the beginners and intermediate daffodil growers and showers, however it’s because I know how hard it is to grow a daffodil society, as it is done through new membership and the growth of those new members into daffodil shows, growers and hopefully hybridizers. We have been working on the local daffodil society that Fran and I started in Northeastern North Carolina for nine years and I keep having the feeling that if we were not available to keep it going that the Daffodil Society would fold. Regardless of our 40 or so membership, we still struggle to get our members to go beyond the small grower status, and to take a leadership in the society. The bright spot is that each year I get feedback from our judges after our show as to how they think we continue to progress and the quality of daffodils in the show continues to improve.

Now if I could only get a couple of the members interested in hybridizing.


4 responses to “A Beginning in Hybrdizing”

  1. Glenna Graves, Virginia says:

    Very good and interesting article Clay!


  2. Clay Higgins, New Jersey Clay Higgins, North Carolina says:

    Thanks Glenna,

    Of course there is a whole book worth of information that I didn’t say. Not to mention that my family’s inside joke is that we don’t learn the first two or three times we fail doing something the same way.  We only learn after the 5th or 6th time it fails. 🙂


  3. Loyce McKenzie, Mississippi Loyce McKenzie, Mississippi says:

    Clay, I have always believed, and have said so repeatedly to the various Youth
    program chairmenL the way to keep Youth members in the ADS during their “gap” period
    –ie., college, first job, married life, first home–etc., is to get them successfully hooked on hybridizing while they are young (and coincidentally have plenty of time ahead to make mistakes, catch them, and see several generations of crosses win for them.).
    The thrill of blue ribbons and names in print fade, but the excitement of looking for something new and wonderful should stay with them forever. And when they have a little more time, and growing space, and perhaps young daffodil growers in their own household, they will have a couple of generations of hybrids which no one else has.

    Loyce McKenzie

  4. Clay Higgins, New Jersey Clay Higgins, North Carolina says:

    Hi Loyce,

    Thanks for the comments.  You and I agree on this one. Hybridizing is a lot of fun.  I have been showing my hybrids now for about 10 or more years.  Some do well for the local shows, but I haven’t gotten much away from the eastern Mid-Atlantic region, even when one bulbocodium that I named that was given to me by Graham Fleming (and I named with his permission) has had some success on the West Coast.  I do believe if we can get both young and older showers involved in hybridizing we can grow our society.  I remember Steve V. sending me an email back in about 1998 saying something to the effect of “so what if you only have another 10 years to live you will have your own hybrids by them.”  I seem to be weathering the time well and it’s WAY beyond 10 years. :-).