Who pollinates the daffodils?
This question has popped up several times recently, probably because daffodils are in bloom this time of year. Based on the fact that daffodils have large showy flowers, I assume that sometime in the distant past daffodils were pollinated by insects—probably bees.
But like most flowers that have been highly manipulated by plant breeders, daffodils are no longer particularly attractive to insects. The reason for this is simple. When it comes to ornamental flowers, plant breeders select for beauty. Daffodils, in particular, are selected for the color of the flower, the symmetry of the flower, the angle of the flower (does it face up or down), the size of the flower, and other arbitrary characteristics that daffodil judges look for.
In selecting for these characteristics—and crossing them with individuals with other favorable characteristics—plant breeders have been able to produce an amazing variety of daffodils that run the gamut from white to yellow to orange to pink. Some of them are very beautiful and prized by collectors and flower aficionados alike.
Daffodil breeders hand-pollinate the flowers they want to cross and, if all works well, they will get a few seeds from each cross. These seeds are planted and tended for many years—I believe the average is about seven—before the bulb is large enough to produce a flower. Only then does the breeder get to see the results of his work. Once a flower is developed that the breeder wants to keep, it is reproduced by asexual reproduction—that is, the bulbs divide and produce new bulbs.
What you lose in this process are many of the characteristics that made the flower attractive to pollinators in the first place. By selecting only for beauty, for example, you may lose fragrance, sweet nectar, nutritious pollen—or any number of things that the pollinators liked.
Years ago, as a member of the Oregon Daffodil Society, I had the good fortune to meet one of the world’s foremost daffodil breeders. I asked her why she wasn’t worried about all her carefully recorded crosses becoming “contaminated” by pollen that might be carried by wind or animal pollinators. I was intrigued to learn that this wasn’t considered important because very rarely will these highly-bred flowers cross without human intervention.
This loss of pollinator-attracting features is not unique to daffodils but happens in all sorts of flowers from roses to pansies. It is the main reason why people interested in planting native bee habitat or wild pollinator habitat are encouraged to plant either native species or heirloom species that have not been highly manipulated. If you are unsure of a plant’s history, there are certain earmarks that point to intensive breeding. These include very large flowers, variegated flowers, flowers of unusual color, great size, long blooming period, or flowers known as “doubles” or “triples” with multiple sets of petals.
If you are trying to plant for pollinators, remember that many of the gardening catalogs mark the varieties that are attractive to pollinators. Also, stay alert when you see local plants that attract large numbers of pollinators—perhaps you can find the name of the variety from the owner or ask for a cutting or find out where the seed came from.
The important thing to remember is that the flowers most attractive to humans are often not those most attractive to pollinators.