Discovering daffodils: stories behind our favourite spring flower
No other flower heralds spring quite like the daffodil. The UK is the world’s biggest grower 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.
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.
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."
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 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.
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.
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. . ."
Daffodils found in our gardens
The fragrant daffodil 'Geranium' is typical of the tazetta group, characterised by multi-headed, scented flowers, and seen growing here at Trelissick in Cornwall.
Narcissus cyclamineus, the cyclamen-flowered daffodil, has swept-back petals like its namesake. First recorded in 1608, this small species daffodil can be found growing at Nymans, West Sussex.
Narcissus 'Stella' dates to 1869 and is one of many heritage daffodils that form an important collection at Cotehele in Cornwall.
The distinctive and diminutive Narcissus bulbocodium, with the delightful common name of 'hoop petticoat', can be found in the garden at Scotney Castle in Kent.
The ruffled petals of the double daffodil 'Sulphur Phoenix', an old pre-1820 variety, growing in the garden at Cotehele in Cornwall.
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.
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