Gardening David Wheeler
The dazzling days of dancing daffs will soon be with us once again. Hooray! In truth they’ve been around since Christmas – cultivated in our warmer counties for indoor scent and decoration, or naturally occurring in such varieties as ‘Cedric Morris’, a steadfast December-flowerer that Beth Chatto says is ‘a joy to pick with early snowdrops’. And daffs will be around until May, when the exquisite pheasant eyes – dainty, leggy, dancing, fragrant – bring down the curtain on a five-month narcissus extravaganza of blazing trumpets white and gold.
Is there a better known, better behaved or better regarded flower? All gardeners grow a few, surely? And most people at some point in the daffs’ long and glorious season flaunt a bunch or two of trophy stems in a vase upon a sill.
Daffodil bulbs are available from early autumn, but right now ready-planted shop-bought ones can be turned out of their pot-bound pots when the flowers begin to fade and plunged into accommodating corners of the garden where they’ll repeat their cyclical magic next year and beyond.
Unlike, say, tulips, daffodil flowers are ‘directional’. In the northern hemisphere they project their noses southwards. Planted therefore along an east/west path they should be sited on the north side. In shrubberies or light woodland they will please themselves, staring into patches of sunlight wherever they find it.
In the ancient Greek myth, Narcissus, son of river god Cephissus and the nymph Liriope (whose name has been given to another floral genus), was besotted with his own overwhelming, youthful beauty. Disdaining others who loved him, he preferred instead to gaze admiringly at his own mirrored image in a pool. Pining, he was changed into the flower that bears his name. Thus we have narcissism. And perhaps it’s a similar self-absorption or egotism that fuels our own desire to make resplendent gardens, patches of personal paradise in which we too can bask in reflected glory.
The Daffodil Society was established in 1898 and this year holds its annual show at Coughton Court in Warwickshire over the weekend of 15th and 16th April, followed by a competition at the Henry Street Garden Centre, Swallowfield Road, Arborfield, Reading, on the 22nd and 23rd. The Throckmorton family’s historic gardens at Coughton nurture a remarkable collection of daffodils in recognition of a distant relative, American physician and horticulturist Dr Tom Dercum Throckmorton of Des Moines, Iowa. Dr Tom created a daffodil colour-coding system – the Tom D Throckmorton Daffodil Data Bank – an annually updated resource published by the American Daffodil Society that helps aficionados to define and describe their collections.
But it’s to the woods I go in March, in search of wild or naturalised daffs in their countless thousands. I choose a brisk, bright and preferably sunny day when cauliflower clouds are chasing each other fitfully over high pasture. My first stop is at Bromsberrow Heath, south-east of Ledbury on the Herefordshire/gloucestershire border where, without leaving the car, I can survey teeming daffs beneath a canopy of old oaks. Then to Newent, taking the B4216 south looking out for an even greater spread of wildlings on the left-hand side before turning back on myself towards the village of Dymock, aglow with golden botanical treasure. Here walked the Dymock Poets 100 years ago: Lascelles Abercrombie, John Drinkwater, Rupert Brooke, Robert Frost, Edward Thomas…
At home, the daffs were pushing through frosty ground before Advent. In addition to the wild ones planted in drifts, my current favourite of the cultivated varieties is ‘Thalia’: whiteflowered, vigorous, enduring, colonising. You can’t have too many.
The daffodil is a flower for all gardens