I‘ve got daffodils on my mind. Daffodils and snowdrops. As another several inches of snow fall from the sky, and the temperature once again plummets below zero (Fahrenheit), my craving for spring grows ever stronger, and every night before getting ready for bed, I go to my happy place, the springtime of the mind. One of the books taking me there is Daffodil: The remarkable story of the world’s most popular spring flower by Noel Kingsbury. What a fascinating book!
As you would expect, there are pictures of daffodils on every page. Some look very familiar to me, and others are a blast from the past or a hint of the future. But I had never considered how intertwined this common flower was with the people who have grown it.
I had always suspected the classic pink daffodil ‘Mrs. R. O. Backhouse’ was named by a breeder for his wife (it happens a lot), and Sara Elizabeth Backhouse was the wife of Robert Ormston Backhouse. But she wasn’t just a beloved spouse worthy of honor, she was also a breeder in her own right, and although the daffodil in question was named after her death, she was the one who bred it. “It was a worthy memorial for someone who had undoubtedly been a gifted breeder, and one of the first women to really make a mark in any field of plant breeding,” Kingsbury remarks. The book is full of historical tidbits like this, included in profiles of notable daffodil breeders. Daffodil gossip, anyone?
Who knew that the British daffodil crop is half the world’s production, with Cornwall being 40% of that? (Both cut flowers and bulbs are represented in that figure.) During the war many narcissus fields there were converted to growing food, and the discarded daffodil bulbs were tossed on the steep banks (Cornish hedges) lining the roads. Many of them took root and thrived, and are now important sources for rediscovering heirloom varieties. Can you imagine driving through the countryside with an assortment of daffodils blooming along both sides of the road?
And pickers have to protect themselves from something called daffodil itch, which is not an inexplicable hankering for every new daffodil cultivar, but a skin irritation caused by calcium oxalate in the sap–just some of the things I learned from this book.
Nowadays, many daffodils are bred to win at daffodil shows. What they are looking for is a daffodil with perianth segments that are in a flat plane and overlap. I was relieved to find out that the public doesn’t necessarily like what does well on a show bench, because to me, many of these show winners look like lollipops. I like the twisted petals and star-like look of many of the heirloom varieties. They seem to have more personality. How about you?
Speaking of heirlooms, a lot of work is being done to identify old cultivars, and there are places you can visit that are like daffodil museums. There are also areas where daffodils have perennialized to the extent that it becomes a tourist attraction. Kingsbury will tell you all about it, should you wish to enjoy a vacation amongst daffodils. The reason why a lot of heirloom daffs are being rediscovered is they are vigorous growers and hard to kill. They have often been languishing in cemeteries or the lawns of venerable estates, routinely being mowed before they build up enough energy to form flowers. Once maintenance procedures are modified and the daffodil foliage is permitted to turn yellow before being cut down, these daffodils come back from anonymity and reveal themselves to be varieties planted long ago.
I tend to lean toward the heirlooms in my affections, but Kingsbury’s book also peeks at the future of daffodil breeding. New species have been introduced into the breeding lines, resulting in new colors for certain types of daffodils, and colors never before seen in hybrids.
Make sure you have paper and pen at hand while reading this book, as you will be certain to see a daffodil (or several) you must have in your garden. Kingsbury lists the sources he mentioned in his text in the back of the book, but doesn’t list Old House Gardens, which if you are interested in heirloom daffodils, is a “must-see.” I have also gotten very special daffodils (but not heirloom) from Daffodils and More.
Here’s two more books on daffodils:
Daffodils for North American Gardens by Brent and Becky Heath. There is some overlap with Kingsbury’s book, but not much. The Heaths focus on what grows well in North America, and devote more text to how to grow daffodils well, including forcing them indoors and breeding new varieties, and don’t go as much into the history.
Daffodils in American Gardens, 1733-1940 by Sara L. Van Beck. Haven’t read this one yet. Scott Kunst of Old House Gardens calls it “a major work of garden-history scholarship.” I’m eager to get my hands on a copy.
Timber Press provided a review copy of Daffodil. Cold Climate Gardening is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com.