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The history of daffodils

Daffodils dappled in sunlight next to a red brick wall
Daffodils growing in the Walled Garden at Wimpole Estate, Cambridgeshire | © National Trust Images/Justin Minns

The UK is the world’s biggest grower of daffodils and they're woven into stories at many of the places in our care. Learn about the daffodil's origins, how there came to be so many varieties and how they've inspired poets and authors throughout the centuries.

The origins of Narcissus

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

The name derives from the Greek ‘narco’, which is the root of the word narcotic. The etymology probably relates to the daffodil's toxicity – all parts of the plant are poisonous.

How daffodils came to Britain

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

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, most daffodils are yellow. Exceptions include the white-petalled Narcissus poeticus varieties and orange and salmon-coloured cultivars.

Different daffodil varieties displayed in glass vases
A display of heritage daffodil varieties at Cotehele, Cornwall | © National Trust Images/James Dobson

Modern daffodils

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

Father of the modern daffodil

The Rev. George Herbert Engleheart is often credited as the father of the modern daffodil. He registered 720 new daffodil varieties between 1882 and 1923, although only around 30 are still commercially available. The N. poeticus species is the most well known.

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 divisions and these are still used today. These are some of the most common.

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

Division 2 – large-cupped

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

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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 poems 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', which is a reference to their flowering season coinciding with the period leading up to Easter.

'Daffodowndilly' was writer AA 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.

A quote by AA Milne An extract from Daffodowndilly

Daffodils in the gardens we look after

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

Cotehele’s daffodil heritage

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

Generations of families worked in fields known locally as ‘Little Gardens’, supplying flowers and fresh produce to national markets which flourished with the development of 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.

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

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