If you search for “King Alfred Daffodils” online, you’ll quickly be scrolling through dozens of retailers offering big, bright yellow flowers named after King Alfred the Great, a 9th century Anglo-Saxon ruler. However, many flower enthusiasts might be surprised to learn that fewer than 500 true King Alfred bulbs are commercially produced each year.
The bulbs sold in the United States under the banner of King Alfred today are not the King Alfred Daffodil that’s officially recognized by horticultural authorities, but rather hybrids that have actually improved upon the original cultivar. These “King Alfred-type” or “King Alfred Improved” daffodils might in fact be varieties like Dutch Master, Rijnveld’s Early Sensation, Marieke, or Golden Harvest. Those are varieties that are actually better than King Alfred, producing flowers that are usually hardier and larger. But in the United States, gardeners are accustomed to calling any tall yellow narcissus by the King Alfred name, arguably making it one of the most famous types of daffodil.
The original King Alfred Daffodil was also popular. It was developed by a man named John Kendall in England at the end of the 19th century, and commercialized by his sons. The April 1, 1899 edition of Gardener’s Chronicle describes the flower as a “large bloom of rich uniform gold, and thick substance” and notes that it was awarded a First-class Certificate by the Royal Horticultural Society. These true King Alfreds are smaller and slightly more delicate than their descendants, but still elegant.
Hybridized newcomers help explain why King Alfred Daffodils stopped being widely cultivated. As varieties with more marketable features came along, growers allocated more and more of their fields to these new types and less and less to the older types. Although we don’t know the exact reasons why different growers made the switch, it’s a common story in the bulb industry and accounts for the disappearance of a number of different flowers. By the 1930s, the cultivar was no longer being produced at a large scale.
King Alfred Daffodils are a good example of how common plant names can take on a life of their own, independently from a plant’s scientific name or its officially registered name. Some sellers may be trying to hoodwink their customers, but others may just be responding to customer demand by offering bulbs that hopefully meet their expectations.
Dutch grower Eric Breed, who specialises in heirloom bulb varieties, is likely the only person still producing the original King Alfred cultivar. His output is about 400 bulbs per year.
“We try to preserve the old varieties because they are charming,” says Breed. “Also for breeding, for hybridizing to make new varieties.” Because this flower naturalises readily, he says you can still sometimes find true King Alfreds growing in old estate gardens.
Some of Breed’s King Alfred bulbs are planted in a small plot at the Colorblends House & Spring Garden, along with a King Alfred “gravestone” that offers a lighthearted memorial to the flower that has functionally disappeared except in name. In the spring, visitors can compare a range of other narcissus cultivars that are widely planted and enjoyed today thanks to the reign of the original King Alfred Daffodil.