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Why are Daffodils yellow?

Posted:
6 March 2017
Posted By:
English Heritage
Categories:
History Uncovered
February Gold daffodils at Witley Court

Daffodils are an unmistakable sign of springtime in our gardens, and with their yellow petals and large trumpets, they’re easy to spot. Or should that be small trumpets and white petals? There are tall ones, tiny ones – even pink ones? How did we get so many different varieties?

Daffodils are native to Europe, North Africa and other areas around the Mediterranean Sea. The Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) is the home of 95% of all Narcissus species, but we do have our own English wild daffodil Narcissus pseudonarcissus – known as known as the ‘Lent lily’. Daffodils of one form or another are documented as having grown in England since before the 14th century. But it wasn’t until the mid 19th century that people really started cross breeding species.

The ever-innovative Victorians began to create varieties of colour and form we see in our gardens today.

What is a hybrid, and who started growing them?

A cultivar is any new plant that comes about in cultivation rather than in the wild – whether done deliberately by breeding a hybrid, or comes about by accident. A hybrid is any new plant which develops from crossing two botanically distinct species. There are now over 25,000 registered daffodil cultivars and around 200 more hybrids are added each year.

Edward Leeds (1802-1877) from Manchester and William Backhouse (1807-1869) from County Durham were the pioneers of daffodil breeding. They crossbred the available wild species of the day and, working independently, produced more than 360 new hybrids that stunned the horticultural world.

A Scottish horticultural entrepreneur, Peter Barr (1826-1909), saw the commercial value of the plants. He purchased the collections of both men. In the autumn of 1884, after the first ever Daffodil Conference by the Royal Horticultural Society, he published a booklet with all 360 of the new daffodils and their descriptions.

He also acquired new daffodil collections from other hybridisers and went on regular field trips to France, Spain and Portugal to collect new Narcissus species. By the second Daffodil Conference in 1890, he had also started breeding new daffodils and had become affectionately known as ‘The Daffodil King’.

Plan a visit to our historic gardens this spring

How to spot some historic daffodil hybrids.

Yellow petals and big trumpets

Many wild daffodils grow on our sites and can be seen around the Hall at Belsay, or growing in amongst the orchard at Down House. It can also be seen across many of our sites in woods, fields and meadows. But as well as this native species, there are many variations of the yellow daffodil.

Here are a few examples:

The Lent Lily Narcissus pseudonarcissus

Where to see it? Belsay Hall, Castle and Gardens

Narcissus pseudonarcissus at Belsay Hall in Northumberland

Narcissus pseudonarcissus at Belsay Hall in Northumberland

NARCISSUS ‘King Alfred’

Where to see it? Osborne

Probably the most famous of all the daffodil varieties is the ‘King Alfred.’ It was raised by John Kendall, though sadly, he died in 1890 – before his famous flower come into bloom. It received an immediate First Class Certificate (FCC) when exhibited for the first time at an RHS show in 1899 and became the most iconic garden daffodil of the 20th century.

You’ll know a ‘King Alfred’ daffodil by its long-cupped trumpet flower which can be up to 10cm wide. Each bulb produces just one flower on a stem up to 50cm tall. And if you look closely, the bright yellow petals surrounding the trumpet have slight twists at the tips.

‘King Alfred’ at Osborne House – many imitators of this daffodil have been grown over the years, so look closely.

NARCISSUS ‘Saint Keverne’

Where to see it? Osborne

The Saint Keverne looks most similar to the King Alfred – the big difference is that it is more lemon yellow and the trumpet is much more expanded.

‘Saint Keverne’ daffodils growing at Osborne. Bred by Michael Percival Williams, it first flowered in 1930 and was registered in 1934. It is named for the place where Mr. Williams raised daffodils until his death in 1935.

NARCISSUS ‘February Gold’

Where to see it? Witley Court

You’ll know ‘February Gold’ because its petals fly backwards.

February Gold daffodil at Witley Court

‘February Gold’ was bred by the de Graaff brothers in the Netherlands and registered before 1923.

Daffodils with white or pink petals

While daffodils in the UK are synonymous with the colour yellow, daffodil species are generally white or yellow, with breeders trying to develop deeper, richer and clearer colours as well as developing orange or pink colours with either uniform or contrasting coloured petals and trumpets.

Look out for…

NARCISSUS ‘Avalanche’

Where to see it? Walmer Castle

‘Avalanche’ is a selection of the ‘Grand Monarque’ daffodil, which was known about before 1759. Several blooms grow on one stem, standing up to 35cm tall.

Avalanche is said to have been found growing on the side of a cliff above the Isles of Scilly in the early 1900s. It's a selection of the ‘Grand Monarque’ which was known before 1759.

‘Avalanche’ is said to have been found growing on the side of a cliff above the Isles of Scilly in the early 1900s.

NARCISSUS ‘Mrs R.O. Backhouse’

William Backhouse’s son Robert, and his wife Sarah, carried on the family tradition of daffodil breeding. Sarah was credited with over 300 new varieties, and is remembered in the cultivar ‘Mrs R.O. Backhouse’.

Courtesy of Shipton Bulbs | Mrs R.O Backhouse was one of the first pink-cupped daffodils to be introduced back in 1923. It is still available and has been one of the most popular garden daffodils of all time.

‘Mrs R.O Backhouse’ was one of the first pink-cupped daffodils to be introduced back in 1923. It is still available and has been one of the most popular garden daffodils of all time. | Courtesy of Shipton Bulbs

Daffodils with small trumpets

The Reverend George Engleheart bred and introduced approximately 700 new hybrids – including ones with small trumpets. He was so prolific he was nicknamed ‘the Daffodil Maker’ and ‘the Father of the Daffodil’.

Examples of daffodils with small trumpets include…

NARCISSUS ‘Bath’s Flame’

Where to see it? Audley End House and Gardens

Bath's Flame at Audley End Rev. Engleheart lived near Bath where he discovered this daffodil.

‘Bath’s Flame’ got its name because Rev. Engleheart lived near Bath where he discovered this daffodil.

NARCISSUS ‘Carbineer’

Where to see it? Osborne House

‘Carbineer’ was bred by Alexander (Alec) M. Wilson in Wales and it was registered before 1927

Is this still a daffodil? The most unusual varieties

Double flowered daffodils were some of the first cultivated and bred as early as the 16th century. They have remained popular with daffodil breeders for the challenge of developing new colour combinations and arrangements of petals.

Can you spot…

NARCISSUS ‘Erlicheer’

Where to see it? Walmer Castle

Daffodil ‘Erlicheer’ originally comes from New Zealand, having been spotted in 1934 in the garden of Mr. Gardiner of Huntly, New Zealand.

Daffodil ‘Erlicheer’ originally comes from New Zealand, having been spotted in 1934 in the garden of Mr. Gardiner of Huntly, New Zealand.

Visit a historic garden this spring

The Daffodil Society

We would like to thank Jan Dalton for his extensive research which formed the basis of this post. Jan is the Daffodil Society’s archivist and is a past Chairman of the Society. He also served on three RHS Daffodil Committees and was Show Secretary of the Daffodil Society’s show at Harrogate Spring Flower Show for 22 years. As a grower, exhibitor, hybridizer and judge for over 45 years, together with his annual trips to photograph and record wild daffodils in their natural habitat, throughout the Iberian Peninsula, his grounding and experience in the field of daffodils is considerable.

For additional information about daffodils and daffodil cultivation, go to the Daffodil Society website thedaffodilsociety.com

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  • About the Author

    English Heritage
    English Heritage cares for over 400 historic sites around England.

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