Daffodil

A detailed and entertaining reintroduction to one of our best known garden plants. A bit of history, a bit of comment and some good plant choices.

Review: Tiffany Daneff

Author: Noel Kingsbury

Pictures: Jo Whitworth

We think

If you’ve reached the inquiring stage – that is you’ve grown a fair few daffs and you know your Jack Snipe from your Pheasant’s Eye – and now fancy branching out a bit this is a very good place to start.

This is a book for the keen gardener, not a monograph, and it is eminently readable from cover to cover. There’s a good general background to the breeding history with nice portraits of the key players. I particularly liked the comparison between the Oxford educated, former MP turned Dean of Manchester, William Herbert (1178-1847) and the Quaker banking family the Backhouses. Father and son, both Williams (1779-1844 and 1807-1869), were keen breeders but it wasn’t just their breeding that made them such key figures in the narcissus story. They had a good eye for marketing. What match was Herbert’s geekily named ‘Spofforthiae Spurius” against the Backhouses’ eminently saleable ‘Emperor’ and ‘Empress’? It was the Quakers too, who first came up with the genius idea (so obvious in hindsight) of growing daffodils in pots indoors to get some early colour.

There is a section on the traditional flower shows (with an nudge from Noel on how the judging process rules against the very old and the very innovative). The history of British commercial growing is fascinating and then he brings us up to date with the current work being done by, Ron Scamp in Cornwall and Kate and Donald by Loch Ewe in the northwest coast of Scotland, on rediscovering and identifying the many lost and forgotten old varieties.

We love

The “best of” plant lists at the back of the book. Which narcissi are best for naturalising? Which the finest whites, which the pick of the pre 1930 heirlooms? etc etc. The “best of the best” list appears at first to be a real head above the ha ha moment as Noel chooses just seven varieties (out of the total 27,000 unique cultivars available) for “The best all round tried and tested”. But then he chickens out by adding “whether the varieties are ‘classic daffodils’ or ‘big, bold and brassy’ is a matter of opinion.”

The book follows its subject across continents from New Zealand to California and includes an illuminating section on the innovative breeding being done in the US by Harold Koopowitz and Robert Spotts among others. We have to thank the American Daffodil Society for their monster website Daffseek which has records of more than 23,000 narcissi and almost 27,000 photographs which have been contributed by 263 photographers from 19 countries. If you think you’ve found something interesting at the bottom of your garden this is a good place to start looking.

Quibble

A photo of every single variety is impossible, of course, but I was wishing the publishers had allowed a little more space for Jo Whitworth’s gentle and beautiful daffodil portraits.