Country Gardener

Widely regarded as the authority on gardening in the south west

Golden oldies

The delicate beauty of older variants of narcissus, long overlooked, is back in fashion as more gardeners celebrate spring with heritage daffodils.

They are a symbol of spring and perhaps the best flower to sum up our love of gardening. For some, daffodils are all about big and bold strong varieties but increasingly we have developed a love affair with the more beguiling and delicate heritage varieties where no two flowers are the same, with a looser form as their slightly twisted petals sway in the breeze.

Many enthusiastic growers believe the desire for perfection has gone too far in our love of daffodils. 

Modern hybrids are anything but subtle and we need a return to more delicacy with heritage varieties. Up until the Edwardian era daffodils were at their best. Then in 1890 the RHS held its first daffodil shows and it heralded the arrival of bolder colours, stiff upright stems and straight nosed trumpets. Some would say that was the start of the split in gardeners’ preferences- some wanting the delicate, less perfect varieties and others keen to aim for perfectly formed consistently virile daffodils

Of the 27,000 varieties of daffodils in existence, most of which have been bred in Britain, only a small proportion are still grown commercially. 

While some older varieties, such as 'King Alfred' (1899), have always been available, most long ago dropped off availability lists. 

Some forgotten varieties still sprout out of hedgerows in Cornwall and Devon, the remnants of cut-flower enterprises that once carpeted fields and orchards with yellow and provided temporary employment for thousands of workers every spring. 

Others are still to be found in old gardens, their names long since lost. 

There is today, however, a growing interest in rediscovering the older varieties, largely because of the recent taste for their delicate beauty that more modern ones have lost. 

Many are tough and resilient, too - after all, plants that have survived up to a century of neglect are sure to be survivors.

Although gardeners have collected eye-catching variants of daffodils since the Middle Ages, it was not until the 19th century that serious collecting and breeding began. The pioneer was a remarkable churchman, William Herbert (1778-1847), an Oxford-educated member of the gentry who entered the Houses of Parliament, took holy orders, and then finally became Dean of Manchester. 

Clearly of that glorious 18th-century English breed, ‘the hunting parson’, he was fond of outdoor life and sport and was a keen amateur naturalist - as were many of his colleagues in the Church of England. He was also a poet. His involvement with daffodils sprang from his interest in one of the great debates of his day, the origin of species. Convinced that some wild French daffodils were, in fact, natural hybrids, he began to make crosses, to prove his point, and so realised the potential of developing hybrids for garden use. 

Daffodils are robust. Unlike tulips, once planted they keep on coming up and flowering every year. 

By the 1880s there was a wide range of hybrids, leading to the Royal Horticultural Society's daffodil conference for the spring of 1884, followed by a four-day show in 1890, which ‘launched the daffodil in garden society’, in the words of one early 20th-century book on the plant.

 beth's flameDaffodil breeding appealed to both nurserymen and aristocratic landowners. But since daffodils take at least five years from seed to flower, plenty of space was needed for breeding work, and cheap labour was required to keep the tiny seedlings weed-free. 

Early breeders needed commitment, acres and money. William Herbert's opinion on the potential for making daffodil breeding popular was therefore not very realistic: "It is desirable to call the attention of the humblest operator, of every labourer indeed, who has a spot of garden, or a ledge at his window, to the infinite variety of narcissi that may thus be raised… offering him a source of harmless and interesting amusement, and perhaps a little profit and celebrity." 

Much early breeding involved crossing the diminutive British wild daffodil, Narcissus pseudonarcissus, with the late-flowering and much taller Narcissus poeticus. The former is pale yellow with a very elongated cup; the latter has a distinctive flat white flower with a very shallow Beershebaorange central cup. Older varieties tend to be dominated by one or the other flower shapes. 

We get the word 'Narcissus' from Greek mythology. A nymph called Echo fell in love with a young Greek named Narcissus, but Narcissus told her to leave him alone. Heartbroken, she lived alone until nothing but an echo of her remained. Nemesis, the God of revenge, heard the story and lured Narcissus to a pool. Narcissus, who was very handsome and quite taken with himself, saw his reflection in the pool and, as he leaned over to see better, fell in and drowned. He turned into the flower.

Among the clearly pseudonarcissus varieties is 'Mrs R. O. Backhouse' (pre-1921), the first so-called "pink" daffodil (actually a faint apricot flush), the pale, creamy 'White Emperor' (pre-1913), and 'Princeps' (pre-1878) - a taller version of the wild plant.

Among the poeticus types are 'Albatross' and its sibling 'Seagull' (pre-1893), both white and narcissus luciferprolific. 'Barrii Conspicuus' (pre-1869), with a sulphur-yellow flower and short bright orange cup, was a favourite with early commercial growers in Cornwall because of its free-flowering and longevity as a cut flower. This variety is particularly striking when contrasted with the large flowers and trumpet-like cups of modern daffodil varieties. 

Old poeticus hybrids tend to have elegant narrow petals and a delicate "propeller", or star-like, appearance. A growing familiarity with the grace of the old hybrids soon makes modern ones look as though they've been fed steroids.

Britain's largest selection of heritage varieties is grown by Ron Scamp in the daffodil-growing heartland of Cornwall. His favourites are three poeticus types: 'White Lady' (pre-1898), a particularly elegant pale variety, 'Bath's Flame' (pre-1913), a delicious pale yellow, and 'Horace' (pre-1894), once one of the most important commercial cut-flower varieties. 

English Heritage, guardian of some of the UK's most important historic gardens, has been taking action with a mass autumn planting campaign including 25,000 bulbs of the native strains of daffodil and bluebells at some of its sites.

John Watkins, Head of Gardens and Landscapes at English Heritage, said: "Native daffodils and bluebells as well as the historic cultivated varieties are a vital part of our horticultural and cultural heritage, inspiring gardeners and poets alike.

"Our native species and historic cultivars are increasingly under threat from cross pollination with non-native species and hybrids that flower at the same time.

"Our spring bulb planting campaign - across some of the most important historic gardens in England - will help arrest that national decline and ensure that the daffodil celebrated by Wordsworth over 200 years ago can still be enjoyed by visitors today and in the future." 

‘The desire for perfection has gone too far in our love of daffodils. Modern hybrids are anything but subtle and we need a return to more delicacy with heritage varieties’.

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