What is it about daffodils? They’re planted everywhere and anywhere, often vulgar and brash in colour and are probably our commonest bulb in both senses, and yet its rare to find someone who dislikes their show and their often brazen visual intrusion. Perhaps its the time of year when we need some strong cheerful colour around us – but in that case why don’t we feel the same way about equally colourful and loud forsythia? In fact of course most people with “taste” prefer the smaller wild species but there’s no need to let that stop the rest of us liking a bit of golden vulgarity!
They certainly seem popular with garden visitors. The National Garden Scheme has a long list of gardens which have Daffodil Days, and there are over 30 entries on our database which list daffodils as one of their attractions.
Several like Coughton Court, Hartland Abbey and Brodie Castle even have specialist or historic daffodil collections. Brodie holds the National Collection:
What might surprise you is the fact that there apparently now over 27,000 named cultivars on the International Daffodil Register which is maintained by the Royal Horticultural Society. This groups the narcissus family into 13 divisions, several of which are further subdivided. However as a look through any bulb catalogue will show you, many are remarkably alike in form, shape and colour.
It used to be said that you could have any colour of daffodil you wanted as long it was yellow or white, but intense breeding programmes have introduced orange, pink and even red ,and more and more unusual flower formation and shapes.
Not all to everyone’s taste I’m sure, so if you like your daffodils a traditional shape and standard yellow in colour then please avert your eyes to the following photos of recent cultivars, and scroll down to read the rest of the post!
This lust for new varieties is not new. Daffodil collecting and breeding has a long tradition, even if the concept of hybridizing wasn’t understood at the time. In his book, Paradisus in Sole of 1629, John Parkinson listed nearly 100 varieties of daffodils that grew in English gardens with evocative names such as “the great double purple ringed daffodil of Constantinople”, “the white mountain daffodil with ears” & “the great yellow Spanish bastard daffodil”. Parkinson also grew daffodils from seeds given to him by his friend Dr Flud who had collected them in the university garden in Pisa.
There was clearly rivalry and competition between plant collectors even then, and Parkinson tells the story of a strange bulb that was presumably grown from seed by Vincent Sion, who was born in Flanders and so was probably a Huguenot refugee. He lived on Bankside in London and like all good gardeners Sion liked to share his treasures.He eventually gave a few bulbs of his new discovery to both Parkinson and to George Willmer of Bow. But, Parkinson says, Willmer wasn’t quite as generous and ” would needes appropriate it to himself as if he was the first founder thereof and call it by his own name: Willmer’s Double daffodil”. More recently it has been re-appropriated in Sion’s memory.
But daffodils fell out of fashion, difficult though that is to imagine, probably because they were regarded as wild flowers and so not worthy of a place in the garden. A slow revival of interest began in the 19thc with amateur gardeners beginning to collect and hybridize them. Our database has articles about two of these pioneer daffodil breeders which make interesting reading.
Edward Leeds [1802-1877] turned his garden near Manchester into an experimental site where he not only grew and hybridized daffodils but many other species of plants, but also kept a herbarium and corresponded with other collectors all over the world. There are still 192 daffodil cultivars associated with him on the International Register.
The other article is about the Backhouse family, who were bankers from County Durham, and became interested in horticulture and botany from the mid-18thc. William Backhouse [1807-1869] began collecting and breeding daffodils and 3 of his children continued that interest.
But it was his son Robert and daughter-in-law Sarah who pursued it with an absolute passion. Sarah was awarded the Barr Cup for her hybridizing skills in 1916. They registered 58 new varieties and their son William another 30. Two years after her death in 1921 Robert bred the first daffodil to have a pink trumpet naming it in her honour. It was selling for £20 a bulb in 1926.
Victorian nurseryman Peter Barr is, however, the unsung daffodil hero who most deserves an article of his own….so if there is anyone out there looking for a little research project then get in touch! Not only did Barr set about discovering
lost varieties but he built up his own collection of cultivars, and formed a syndicate to buy the collections of Edward Leeds , then William Backhouse and finally that of William Gudgeon Nelson, a Norfolk daffodil breeder and then started to put them into commercial production.
Barr wrote enthusiastically about daffodils, and published a list of 361 cultivars in Ye Narcissus or Daffodyl Flowre and hys Roots, with Hys Historie and Culture (1884). His nursery at Long Ditton near Surbiton in Surrey became famous for the magnificent displays they put on, and really helped make the daffodil the most popular spring flower. After his retirement he spent seven years touring the world lecturing on daffodils. So it’s not surprising that Gardeners Chronicle called him the Daffodil King.
But there were plenty of other early collectors, growers and hybridizers of daffodils. Others are the subject of a series of interesting articles by historian Catherine Beale on her website: http://www.cbeale.co.uk
As a result of all this interest daffodils began to be exhibited at local flower shows all round the country , and in 1898 the Daffodil Society was established with Robert Backhouse and Ellen Willmott amongst its vice-presidents. It is still flourishing as a quick look at its website http://thedaffodilsociety.com will confirm.
Daffodil growing became commercialized in the late 19thc in many parts of the country and there is still a commercial daffodil industry in several parts of the country despite strong competition from cheap flower and bulb imports. The UK is the largest producer in the world of daffodil cut flowers with sales of about £25 million a year.
Golden Harvest,by Andrew Tompsett  tells the story of the Cornish industry but there are other major centres in Lincolnshire and Northern Ireland, although commercial growing has declined in several other areas such as around Newton Poppleford in east Devon where King Alfred was first raised by John Kendall a retired London solicitor, turned daffodil hybridizer in 1890. By 1900 Peter Barr had taken it into commercial production selling the bulbs for 6 guineas each that year. Elsewhere, in places such as Brownsea Island in Dorset, the springtime still produces golden traces of the industry in the fields of former daffodil farms.
It would good to have more information on our database about the history of daffodils and daffodil growing, so, once again, if you know of any good reasearch on local growers or the industry in general then please let us know.
An excellent start to finding out more about daffodils is Noel Kingsbury’s book Daffodil: The Remarkable Story of the World’s Most Popular Spring Flower, which was published by Timber Press last year. By his own admission he’s not a “daff nut” but he has a fascination with social history and a very readable style that makes the story irresistible. And the photographs are wonderful – they might even help you tell some of those 27,000 varieties apart!
As you might guess there are plenty of interesting links and follow-ups to a post like this so if you want to know more…
The best place to start is the Daffodil Society http://thedaffodilsociety.com and from there you’ll find further links to many other daffodil related sites including growing tips, places to visit, a massive photo collection, local groups and the history of the daffodil.