Discovering daffodils: stories behind our favourite spring flower

No other flower heralds spring quite like the daffodil. The UK is the world’s largest commercial producer of daffodils – so it's not surprising they have such a significant place in our gardening history and culture.

From Wordsworth’s golden daffodils in Cumbria to the cut-flower industry in Cornwall, daffodils are woven into the stories of many National Trust places. Here we look at the origins of our favourite spring bloom and explore some notable daffodil collections in our gardens.

Our native daffodil, Narcissus pseudonarcissus, growing here at Acorn Bank in Cumbria was once a common wild flower. It's smaller and more delicate looking than most cultivated varieties
Our native daffodil, Narcissus pseudonarcissus, growing here at Acorn Bank in Cumbria, was once a common wild flower but is far less so now. It's smaller and more delicate looking than most cultivated varieties.
Our native daffodil, Narcissus pseudonarcissus, growing here at Acorn Bank in Cumbria was once a common wild flower. It's smaller and more delicate looking than most cultivated varieties

The origins of narcissus

            
The botanical name for the daffodil is narcissus, the name given to the beautiful youth in Greek mythology who was tricked into falling in love with his own reflection. The drooping flowers which 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. Florists and daffodil pickers are familiar with the rash that can be caused when the stalk's sap comes into contact with the skin. 

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

Daffodils arranged in staged vases at the Daffodil Weekend held every March at Trelissick in Cornwall
Daffodils arranged in staged vases at the annual Daffodil Weekend in March at Trelissick in Cornwall
Daffodils arranged in staged vases at the Daffodil Weekend held every March at Trelissick in Cornwall

Every shade of yellow

Their uplifting yellow flowers and true perennial habit make daffodils 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 and across generations. 

" The presence of old daffodil cultivars can provide important clues to a garden's history."
- John Lanyon, Head Gardener and daffodil connoisseur, Cornwall

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. Still, all daffodils fall into the same spectrum of the colour wheel.

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. It was during the 1800s that the modern daffodil began to evolve with breeders selecting flowers for different aesthetic qualities. 

A watercolour of two of the earliest forms of double daffodils, 'Orange Phoenix' on the left and 'Golden Phoenix' on the right, by Georg Ehret, 1753, Dudmaston, Shropshire
botanical illustration of daffoldils
A watercolour of two of the earliest forms of double daffodils, 'Orange Phoenix' on the left and 'Golden Phoenix' on the right, by Georg Ehret, 1753, Dudmaston, Shropshire

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

 

Daffodil divisions

Narcissus 'California' flowering at Cotehele in Cornwall in March

Division 2 – large-cupped

Around 45 percent 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.

the small-cupped daffodil 'Seagull', dates from 1893 and flowers at Cotehele, Cornwall in March

Division 3 – small-cupped

Small-cupped daffodils show the influence of Narcisssus poeticus with strong-coloured cups and paler petals. Daffodil ‘Seagull’ is an old cultivar registered in the 1890s.

The double daffodil 'Butter and Eggs' is an old variety dating from the 17th century. It can be found growing at Cotehele in Cornwall during March

Division 4 – doubles

Double-flowered daffodils vary enormously in their form and can be single or multi-headed. Some varieties are very old, such as ‘Butter and Eggs’, which dates to the 17th century.

The daffodil maker

The Rev. Engleheart with his gardeners, overseeing the planting of daffodil bulbs

Trial fields

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. This early 20th-century photograph shows Engleheart overseeing the planting of a new daffodil trial bed.

Narcissus 'Firebrand', dates back to 1897 and can be found flowering in the orchard at Cotehele in Cornwall during March

Engleheart's daffodils

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. These include Narcissus 'Firebrand', registered in 1897 and seen here flowering at Cotehele in Cornwall.

Cotehele’s daffodil heritage

In spring a remarkable collection of daffodils flower at Cotehele in Cornwall which are very different from today's modern varieties. These are 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 burgeoned 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.

 

Vast numbers of native daffodils are planted around the lake in the garden at Sizergh, Cumbria
Vast numbers of native daffodils are planted around the lake in the garden at Sizergh, Cumbria
Vast numbers of native daffodils are planted around the lake in the garden at Sizergh, Cumbria

Cultural inspiration

Daffodils have inspired writers, poets and artists through the centuries. A favourite flower among the Romantic poets, daffodils were immortalised by Wordsworth in one of the most famous poems in the English language. The poet’s ‘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 Daffodowndilly, Yellow Maidens 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 found in our 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. Below are some of our most significant collections.  

Thousands of daffodil flowers bloom at Acorn Bank, including 14 different cultivated varieties and many hybrids

Acorn Bank, Cumbria

Swathes of daffodils fill the walled garden and woods around Acorn Bank in spring, the legacy of Dorothy Una Ratcliffe who gave Acorn Bank to the National Trust in 1950. A wealthy socialite, prolific writer and keen gardener, Dorothy planted thousands of bulbs in the 1930s, including some of the earliest varieties such as ‘Telamonius Plenus’, a double daffodil dating to the 17th century. She was so fond of the flower that she asked friends to remember her as the ‘lady of a million daffodils’. From early April through to May, the garden feels as though it's honouring Dorothy’s memory with a sea of flowers.

The view across the orchard at Cotehele in Cornwall, where thousands of heirloom daffodils flower

Cotehele, Cornwall

Cotehele is home to the most significant collection of historic daffodils in the National Trust and one of the most important nationally. Varieties such as ‘Coverack Pride’, ‘Saint Issey’ and ‘Scilly White’ reflect their Cornish heritage, while ‘Van Sion’, ‘Orange Phoenix’ and 'Grand Soleil d’Or’ are some of the oldest daffodils recorded. A restored packing shed where daffodil growers once prepared flowers to be sent ‘up country’, tells the story of the enduring influence of daffodils on the Tamar valley landscape.

Wild daffodils cover Dora's Field in Cumbria with flowers in early spring

Dora's field, Cumbria

In 1826 William Wordsworth bought a field next to his home, Rydal Mount, to protect his family from the threat of eviction. Although his tenancy was eventually secured, Wordsworth retained the field and gave it to his daughter, Dora. When she died in 1847 from tuberculosis he planted it with daffodils in her memory. In March the field is covered with thousands of wild daffodils - a living memorial to a beloved daughter stretching back almost two centuries.

Drifts of late-flowering pheasant's eye daffodils, naturalised under the apple trees at Erddig near Wrexham

Erddig, Wrexham

In spring the gardens are awash with daffodils. Many heirloom varieties come into flower in the borders around the garden walls. Old native Welsh daffodils are naturalised in grassland either side of the central canal pond and the display culminates in drifts of late-flowering Narcissus poeticus var. recurvus with pure white, windswept petals, planted under the apple trees. Flowering around blossom time, the scent from the thousands of blooms is heavenly.

Engleheart's daffodils are scattered throughout the orchard and woodland around Little Clarendon, Wiltshire

Little Clarendon, Wiltshire

The Rev. George Engleheart began breeding daffodils in the 1870s. His breakthrough variety was Narcissus ‘Will Scarlet’ introduced at the Birmingham Flower Show in 1898. Its bright orange trumpet set it apart from other daffodils and caused a sensation when it was first exhibited. Research is on-going to identify which Engleheart varieties still survive at Little Clarendon. April is the best time to see the daffodils flowering in the adjacent orchard.

The historic daffodil collection in bloom along the Lime Avenue at Saltram in Devon

Saltram, Devon

Along Saltram’s long Lime Avenue a significant collection of old Tamar valley daffodils flower each spring. They were probably planted for the 3rd Earl of Morley and his head gardener exhibited prize winning blooms at the Devon Daffodil and Spring Society shows in the early decades of the 20th century. Over 120 historic varieties have been identified and mapped and an additional 4,000 bulbs planted to create an impressive display of heirloom daffodils with a close connection to Plymouth's Tamar valley heritage.

Garden conservation

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