Daffodil: Book Review

– Posted in: Book reviews, Narcissus

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!

Van Sion daffodils

‘Telamonius Plenus’ was introduced by Vincent Sion in the 17th century and is found around many old houses. It is also called ‘Double Van Sion.’

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?

Firebrand narcissus

‘Firebrand,’ bred by George Engleheart, is typical of late 19th century hybrids with wide spacing between perianth segments, which also have a twist to them. Photo ©Jo Whitworth, Taken from Daffodil© Copyright 2013 by Noel Kingsbury and Jo Whitworth. Published by Timber Press, Portland, OR. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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.

Oregon Pioneer narcissus

‘Oregon Pioneer’ has the kind of look favored by judges at daffodil shows. The perianth segments are in a flat plane with no gaps between the segments. Taken from Daffodil© Copyright 2013 by Noel Kingsbury and Jo Whitworth. Published by Timber Press, Portland, OR. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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?

Feu de Joie narcissus

‘Feu de Joie,’ bred by William Copeland before 1927, is described as “untidy” by Kingsbury. I find it appealing. Taken from Daffodil© Copyright 2013 by Noel Kingsbury and Jo Whitworth. Published by Timber Press, Portland, OR. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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.

unnamed green seedling daffodil

This unnamed seedling, bred by Harold Koopowitz, hints at one direction breeders are following. Taken from Daffodil© Copyright 2013 by Noel Kingsbury and Jo Whitworth. Published by Timber Press, Portland, OR. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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.

Want More?

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.

And if you’re still hankering for more, check out my other daffodil posts. (Heck, snowdrops, too.)

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.

About the Author

Kathy Purdy is a colchicum evangelist, converting unsuspecting gardeners into colchicophiles. She would be delighted to speak to your group about colchicums or other gardening topics. Kathy’s been writing since 4th grade, gardening since high school, and blogging since 2002.

If winter is slumber and spring is birth, and summer is life, then autumn rounds out to be reflection. It’s a time of year when the leaves are down and the harvest is in and the perennials are gone. Mother Earth just closed up the drapes on another year and it’s time to reflect on what’s come before.

~Mitchell Burgess in Northern Exposure

Comments on this entry are closed.

kathy Sturr of the Violet Fern March 9, 2015, 9:04 am

So very interesting! I own several Noel Kingsbury books – this sounds like a wonderful addition. I have to agree with you – I prefer the heirloom over the “lollipop.” That hint of green in the last picture is stunning, though, I have to admit. I plant more and more daffodils each year in my garden. I would like to begin adding specific varieties (I usually just go for a mix of types, bloom times – and focus on those that naturalize). I can’t wait to see this year’s cheery faces! This book might have to offer a Spring preview. I foresee deep depression on my horizon as I make my way home.

MB March 9, 2015, 8:54 am

When in spring would be the ideal time to visit Cornwall to see all these daffodils in bloom?

Kathy Purdy March 9, 2015, 9:06 am

The book says flower production in Cornwall begins in early February and continues through May, but it doesn’t say when peak bloom time is. Surely there is a visitor’s bureau or something similar that could tell you when the best time to visit would be.

Frank March 7, 2015, 11:04 pm

Great review! I actually just finished reading this book a few weeks ago after buying it last spring…. thanks to you of course 😉 It was just the book to take me through the depths of winter.
I love the green daffs. I don’t think they’re hardy (yet), give the breeders a few more years and I think there will be an amazing new race of daffs based on these (they also last much longer than the typical ones).
My clump of feu de Joie is up for division this year, let me know if you’re interested it’s a good grower!

Donna@Gardens Eye View March 7, 2015, 7:01 pm

I cannot wait for spring and am getting restless as I see more snow and cold. I also love the heirlooms and very interesting about the 40% in the UK. If I’m not careful I could certainly add many new and wonderful daffs.

Jenny March 7, 2015, 12:27 pm

Seeing those photos of unusual daffs. has peaked my interest in adding some new and unusual ones to my spring garden. I hope there is some guidance on those that do well in the south. How fascinating about the Cornish roadside daffs. We were there in May last year when they were long gone but I loved those steep hedgerow banks with ragged robin and cow parsley.

Kathy Purdy March 7, 2015, 1:21 pm

There is a list in the back for daffs “for warm springs and hot, humid summers.” There is also a list titled, “Early but robust, even in continental climates.” I am not even sure what a continental climate is.

Layanee March 7, 2015, 11:36 am

I am a big fan of Noel and will look for this book. I hope your spring comes right on time and lasts with moderate temps, perfect amounts of rain and sun during the day.

Beth March 7, 2015, 10:08 am

I have the Heath’s book and have been eyeing Van Beck’s, but I wasn’t aware of Kingsbury’s book. Thanks for bringing it to my attention and for the interesting tidbits you shared from it. It makes me want some less-common varieties…. I guess that’s how the collector’s itch starts. -Beth

Kathy Purdy March 7, 2015, 11:10 am

Yes, the other daffodil itch!

Les March 7, 2015, 9:41 am

I think I covet that last daffodil. The blooms remind me of damsel flies.

Dee Nash March 7, 2015, 9:00 am

You are such a wonderful reviewer Kathy. I bought the book. Thank you!~~Dee

anonymouse March 7, 2015, 7:49 am

Wow, that unnamed white and green seedling is stunning! I’d love to have it in my garden.

Kathy Purdy March 7, 2015, 11:16 am

So would I! I imagine if it ever gets named and chosen for retail production, it will be very expensive for years to come.

Joanne March 7, 2015, 7:34 am

Thanks for the review of this book..I just had to order it…Happy Spring..