Skip to content

The history of daffodils

Daffodils in the garden on the Wimpole Estate, Cambridgeshire
Daffodils in the garden on the Wimpole Estate | © National Trust Images/Justin Minns

No other flower heralds spring quite like the daffodil. The UK is the world’s biggest grower of daffodils and they are woven into the stories of many National Trust places. Learn about the origins of our favourite spring bloom, how there came to be so many varieties and how daffodils have inspired poets and authors throughout the centuries.

The origins of narcissus

The botanical name for the daffodil is narcissus, named after the beautiful youth in Greek mythology who was tricked into falling in love with his own reflection. The drooping flowers that characterise most daffodils are said to recall Narcissus bending over to catch his image in a pool of water.

The name derives from the Greek ‘narco’, root of the word narcotic. The etymology probably relates to the daffodil's toxicity – all parts of the plant are poisonous. The stalk's sap can cause a rash when it comes in contact with the skin.

How daffodils came to Britain

The Romans are known to have planted narcissus in memory of loved ones or comrades fallen in battle. It’s likely they brought daffodils to Britain from the Iberian Peninsula, predominantly Spain and Portugal, where the largest variety of daffodil species are found.

A display of daffodils in the Sounding Chamber at Cliveden, Buckinghamshire
A display of daffodils in the Sounding Chamber at Cliveden | © National Trust Images/Hugh Mothersole

Every shade of yellow

Daffodils’ uplifting yellow flowers and true perennial habit make them an enduring garden favourite. Clumps of daffodil bulbs have been known to survive in the ground for well over a century, flowering consistently for decades.

There are more than 27,000 cultivated varieties. Despite intensive breeding, however, most daffodils are yellow. Exceptions include the white-petalled 'poeticus' varieties and cultivars that diverge towards orange and salmon.

Modern daffodils

It can take five years for a daffodil to flower from seed. Until the 19th century, daffodils were either wild species or natural hybrids which had slowly increased over time. The modern daffodil evolved during the 1800s when breeders began to select flowers for different aesthetic qualities.

The daffodil maker

The Rev. George Herbert Engleheart is often credited as the father of the modern daffodil. In 1901 he moved to Little Clarendon in Wiltshire and continued his work producing new daffodil hybrids.

Engleheart registered 720 new daffodil varieties between 1882 and 1923, although only around 30 are still commercially available. His work with the poeticus species is his enduring legacy.

Daffodil divisions

A method of classifying daffodils, based on their different forms and origins, was developed by the RHS Daffodil Committee in 1950. There are 13 different numbered divisions and these are still used today. Here are some of the most common.

Narcissus 'California', photographed at Cotehele, Cornwall
Narcissus 'California', photographed at Cotehele | © National Trust Images/Carole Drake

Division 2 – large-cupped

Around 45 per cent of registered daffodils fall into this division, making it the largest, with many variations. Daffodil ‘California’ is a pre-1927 variety. Its bright yellow flowers appear early in the season.

1 of 3

Cultural inspiration

Daffodils have inspired writers, poets and artists through the centuries. A favourite flower among the Romantic poets, they were immortalised by Wordsworth in his poem Daffodils, one of the most famous in the English language.

The poet’s line ‘A host of golden daffodils’ recalls the swathes of wild flowers discovered on a walk with his sister Dorothy along the shore of Ullswater in the Lake District in early April 1802.

Over the centuries, daffodils have been given many common or local names, including the daffodowndilly, yellow maiden and Lent lily, a reference to their flowering season coinciding with the period leading up to Easter.

Daffodowndilly was writer A.A. Milne’s choice for his poem about the flower, published in his book of verse for children, When We Were Very Young (1924).

‘She wore her yellow sun-bonnet, She wore her greenest gown; She turned to the south wind, And curtsied up and down...’

– From Daffodowndilly by A. A. Milne, 1924

Daffodils in National Trust gardens

From rare heritage varieties at Cotehele and Saltram along the Tamar valley to a daffodil memorial at Dora's Field in the Lake District, daffodils have played an important role in the history of many National Trust places.

Cotehele’s daffodil heritage

Cotehele in Cornwall has a particularly unique collection of daffodils. Varieties here include 19th-century hybrids, the surviving remnants of a major flower industry which once thrived along the Tamar valley.

Fields known locally as ‘Little Gardens’ were worked by generations of families, supplying flowers and fresh produce to national markets which flourished with the coming of the railways.

The industry declined after the Second World War and many of the old fields became overgrown and lost. Daffodil bulbs were discarded into hedgerows and the surrounding countryside where they continued to bloom, largely forgotten, for decades.

With help from a local grower, who donated old bulbs, the gardeners and volunteers at Cotehele rescued many of these rare daffodils. Catalogued and protected, they now grow alongside other historic daffodil varieties which have been established in the garden.

You might also be interested in

Tulips at Standen, West Sussex

The history of tulips 

Discover the story of this popular bulb and learn about its place in art and horticulture over the centuries, from its origins in Asia to 17th-century ‘tulipomania’ and beyond.

Dahlias in bloom in the Dahlia Garden at Anglesey Abbey, Cambridgeshire, in September.

The history of dahlias 

Uncover the horticultural history of the dahlia, from its origins in Central America to becoming an inspiration for legendary crime writer Agatha Christie.

An adult and two children explore the garden surrounded by daffodils in spring at Cotehele, Cornwall

Daffodils at Cotehele 

Enjoy a dazzling display of daffodils at Cotehele estate in spring, when the estate is filled with different varieties, some dating back to the 17th century.