Growing & Showing Blue Ribbon daffodils

Nantucket's annual Daffodil Show

by: Lucy Apthorp Leske

photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger

Judging daffodils may look like serious business, but a sense of humor and camaraderie are essential for success.

For 33 years, the Nantucket Garden Club has partnered with the American Daffodil Society to stage an annual daffodil show on Nantucket in late April or early May, timed to coincide with the peak of the daffodil bloom across the island.

Made possible through the efforts of countless volunteers, hundreds of gardeners and a confederation of local nonprofit organizations and donors, the show has grown to command regional if not national respect.

Daffodils plucked from Nantucket roadsides where they’ve grown for years, planted no doubt in the 1970s when the late Jean MacAusland founded an island-wide movement to populate Nantucket with daffodils, are entered and exhibited alongside blooms grown with care and attention by serious pseudo-professionals. But because flowers are exhibited anonymously, plebian flowers are judged fairly against regal competitors, and the best man wins.

As a result, the annual Daffodil Show remains a community favorite, open to all and fun for everyone. All comers are eligible for ribbons and awards. Each year, islanders and visitors alike groom and prep their flowers for entry, with hundreds of blooms displayed. Depending on the weather, different flower types, colors and sizes dominate the show. In late spring, trumpet and large-cupped whites and yellows dominate the show while early springs and warmer weather cause pink-cupped and double flowers to reign supreme. Either way, the public is treated to tremendous variety and quality as well as a chance to view perfection.

What characterizes perfection in a daffodil flower? One must ask the judges. In order to stage a daffodil show sponsored by the American Daffodil Society (ADS), ADS judges are required. An ADS judge is a volunteer position gained through education, training and certification, a process that can take several years. One must be dedicated and passionate about daffodils to gain such status, and be able to discern the differences among daffodils that, to the naked eye, look exactly like.

That’s how nuanced daffodil judging can be, especially when experienced growers are vying with each other for prizes. Until recently, Nantucket had to fly all its judges in from off-island because we have had no ADS-certified judges living here year-round. Fortunately, a few years ago, Sally Nash moved to Nantucket. A lifelong horticulturist, gardener, International Design Society flower arranger, Garden Club of America and Federated Garden Club judge and painter, Sally became an ADS daffodil judge when she and her husband Peter were raising their four boys in Dedham, Massachusetts.

Summers were hectic in their family, so Sally restricted her gardening to spring and fall when the boys were in school and she had more time.

“Besides, I love that time of year when the leaves are still off the trees, the spring sunshine is coming through the woods, and the daffodils just start to appear,” she says.

Sally also taught others in her interest areas and ended up traveling the world to teach, deliver workshops and judge at various flower shows. When she moved to Nantucket in 1999 where her great-grandparents were married and grandfather was born, she and Peter were able to purchase the perfect property on Polpis Road to develop an extensive collection of daffodils.

With excellent drainage and a southern exposure, the slope behind their house contains an astonishing 350 to 400 different varieties of daffodils, each carefully labeled with source, name and division. What’s more, she keeps track of where everything is planted on a detailed map and accompanying Excel spread sheet. Sally is serious about her daffodils.

Which illustrates perfectly why serious judging also requires a sense of humor and flexibility.

“In most shows, if a daffodil is named or classified improperly, it is disqualified and can’t get a ribbon,” Sally says. Judges are sticklers for accuracy and perfection, but nothing in life is perfect. Each crinkle, fold, spot or shadow can cause a bloom to fall from favor, but some of the distinctions judges draw are as fine as split hairs, perplexing and funny at once.

The palest tinge of pink or extra millimeter of flare in a cup can send judges into lengthy conferences about the proper name or classification, begging the occasional question of whether life is too short. Judges have their likes and dislikes, too. Sally admits that she long viewed split-corona daffodils as “impostors.” Because she must judge them all, however, she “sidled up to them” one day and has learned to tolerate their presence in her yard.

Not all daffodils grow well here, she observes, and every year is different. Sally goes with the flow. “I grow them all, but I’ve found that Division V and VII daffodils don’t like it here very much.” The average gardener may not care to what division a daffodil belongs, a distinction that only makes sense to folks who like to exhibit blooms. For judging and classification purposes, daffodils are divided into 13 divisions based on daffodil type and delineated by size of cup relative to petals (perianth), number of blooms on a stem, the degree of doubling, and whether the daffodil is a hybrid or an original species.

Most daffodils can trace their lineage to the Mediterranean region of the world and approximately 26 original species of narcissus. So much hybridizing has taken place over the last few centuries, however, that the daffodils we see and buy today are far removed from their ancient ancestors. The ADS guide to daffodils, “Daffodils to Grow and Show,” lists over 6,000 different varieties, along with their originator, proper classification and division. What is instructive for the average gardener about Sally’s experience is that Division V and VII bulbs (triandrus, jonquilla and apodanthus bulbs, for Latin lovers) are less successful on Nantucket because they are less hardy. They should be avoided in favor of other varieties.

Asked if she takes to breeding her own varieties, Sally admits she doesn’t have the time. Instead, she relies on expert growers to supply her with top-quality bulbs. A favorite of blue-ribbon winners, Mitsch Novelty Daffodils in Hubbard, Oregon, has been supplying Sally and others with show-quality daffodils since the 1930s. Now owned and operated by a third generation of family members, Rich and Elise Havens, Mitsch Novelty Daffodils offers more than 300 different varieties of bulbs primarily of their own origination.

An international traveler and winter resident of Guatemala, Sally is not one to restrict her daffodil purchases to American bulbs. She is not afraid to tap international sources: New Zealand, Australia and Tasmania are particularly good. In general, she likes to buy her bulbs from places with weather like ours because they are already acclimated to our temperature range and climate.

“Our show gets great comments from judges,” she says, “because our fabulous growing conditions are reflected in the caliber of the entries.” Nantucket’s weather and soils could not be better for daffodils.

Sally’s primary interest these days is encouraging and mentoring others to get involved. Mary Malavase, former Nantucket Garden Club president, frequent Daffodil Show chair, and blue-ribbon winner, says that Sally has been a godsend for Nantucket.

“She told me once that she wants to make herself obsolete by getting other people interested in and excited about judging,” says Mary. “Because of her involvement in the ADS, she has brought unbelievable mentors and resources to the island. Her contribution to education and visibility has been invaluable. She gets people really excited and takes the myth out of growing daffodils.”

Now on the board of the ADS, Sally has been responsible for bringing some of the society’s best judges to the island as well as offering courses on-island for becoming a judge. Being able to identify and grade daffodils properly is one criterion for becoming a judge. The ADS offers courses on how to do this. One such course is being offered here on Nantucket on Sunday, April 29 as part of Nantucket’s 34th Annual Daffodil Festival.

The daffodil show itself will be staged at the Coffin School, 4 Winter St. Entries are welcome and accepted on Friday afternoon, April 27, and Saturday morning, April 28, with the show open to the public on Saturday afternoon and all day Sunday, April 29. A complete schedule for the show, complete with a guide for exhibiting, can be found in advance at island garden centers and nurseries. Sally joins with the entire Nantucket Garden Club and her ADS colleagues to invite one and all to exhibit, participate and learn more about the wonderful world of daffodils. Growing and showing daffodils is as easy as pie.

Lucy Apthorp Leske is a contributing editor to Nantucket Today. She writes a weekly column, “Gardening by the Sea,” for The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.

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