Narcissus – not just a pretty face

Much like my obsession with Snowdrops and Iris has been growing exponentially so has my love of Daffodils, after all what would spring be without them! Join me for a quick look at historic Narcissus
Possibly ‘Stella’

Ever since that April in 1802, and very likely before, when Wordsworth wandered lonely as a cloud and found himself inspired subsequently to pen his poem extolling the virtues of the host of daffodils at ullswater, we have fettered concepts of spring to these accommodating bulbs. Their bright and cheery faces decorating every kind of merchandise you could possibly think of, bunches sold by the dozen in the supermarkets. Bulbs stuffed into pots and forced by their 1000s so we can bring them inside for their scent and their colour.

We are a nation in love with narcissus!

Since their earliest identification in the mid-1500s, more than twenty-eight thousand hybrid daffodils have been named and registered with the Royal Horticulture Society. I recently bought a book, which is a very dry bit of reading, printed in October of 1950. It’s foxed musty pages open with the explanation that the council had decided 40 years previously to design a system of registration and classification. This system is made up of seven classes and, with some modifications is still in place today, is the basis of judging for all narcissus in flower shows across the country.

More than just dry facts though, over the years I have come to make fascinating connections with some of these historic Narcissus. They have become entrancing, ephemeral glances at gardeners long gone. Gardeners who tended this land and chose these hardy, long lived bulbs, who planned for the future and if we just wait and watch we can, like the traveller in Orson Wells book, glimpse the past.

A while back I visited a garden called Fairfield house. It was at one time a relatively famous rose garden clearly beloved and much enriched by its owners in the past. It had sadly in more recent years become quite sad, neglected and overgrown. The roses becoming gnarled and distorted for being left tied to the walls overly long and a tangle of Iris rhizomes flanked the North wall (by the lost ice house) with the most wonderful Narcissus valiantly ignoring the overcrowded position they found themselves in. I was smitten! I needed to know their name!

I found two articles online, one on Ebay, a copy of Country Life from 1979 that featured the garden on its front cover and inside black and white pictures show a charming, abundant and manicured garden with plants overspilling borders and scrambling over walls. Most importantly though a list of the narcissus chosen to grace the walled gardens borders!

Beersheba, Mount Hood, Geranium, Carlton, poeticus, Peeping Tom ,Liberty Bells, March Sunshine, Tete Tete, Charity May, Dove wings and Binkie!

I had my answer, Thanks to the excellent record keeping of Mr Peter Wake (I’m unsure if he had a gardener, I assume he did but sadly the hardworking person doesn’t get even a mention).


Binkie was raised by W. Wolfhagen of Tasmania in 1938. This flower was responsible not only for the creation of an entirely new subdivision of large cupped Narcissus but was also a parent to many other equally strong attractive varieties over the next 20 or 30 years.

Then I remembered a wonderful bunch of daffs I had been left whilst recovering from covid by a mystery neighbour in 2020, I think these too may be Binkie.

Narcissus ‘Pastorale’ is a child of ‘Binkie’ registered in 1965

Binkie counts as a Heritage Narcissus but there are older varieties, ones that you are unlikely to see entered into a competition. They are starting to be of interest to the discerning eye. Usually highly scented, more delicate than the modern varieties but also less uniform.

The first person of interest in this category is a breeder called William Backhouse II( B:1807- D:1869), a Scotsman who holds the title of being one of the first people to actively hybridise Narcissus. His family went on to create a wealth of new Narcissus including the first pink cupped Narcissus. On the Backhouse Rossie estates they now hold the National Collection of Backhouse Narcissus and one day I would love to visit! It currently comprises over 89 Backhouse Heritage Daffodil cultivars and is the largest collection of Backhouse heritage daffodils in the world.

Below is a Narcissus I believe to be ‘Mrs Langtry’ I have been generously donated a few bulbs of this dainty beauty which I hope to grow alongside a confirmed ‘Mrs Langtry’. This is really the only way of confirming or denying its true identity.

N. ‘Mrs Langtry’ (I believe) named after William Backhouse’s housekeeper 1869

The second really important chap in historic Narcissus is of course the Rev. George Herbert Engleheart (B:25 April 1851 – D:15 March 1936). His home, from 1901, Little Clarendon in Wiltshire was a nexus for his Narcissus breeding.

There is now a dispersed National Collection of Engleheart Narcissus, some of which is held by Kate Elliot, Head Gardener of Columbine Hall in Suffolk.

Some of his better known and more available varieties are ‘Beersheba’, ‘Lucifer’ and ‘White Lady’ but ‘Baths Flame’, pictured below, is also attributed to him although its unclear whether this was a selection from a “wild” population or one he purposefully bred. I can find no clear indication of either.

‘Baths Flame’ planted en masse Pre 1913 Rev Engleheart

I have found lurking atop the stone balustrade at my new workplace one which I believe to be ‘Baths Flame’ further tests shall be performed to conclude its identity.

I believe this to be ‘Baths Flame’

Although Rev. Engleheart and William Backhouse are probably the best known Narcissus breeders of their time they were not alone. Below is a Narcissus attributed to “Edmunds and Co.” pre 1899 ‘Maggie May’

I can find absolutely zero information on them and only this one variety attached to the name… it is stunning though!

Possibly ‘Maggie May’ pre 1899

Naming an unknown Narcissus is also fraught with difficulties as this picture below shows, there are 3 different types here

‘Firebrand’, ‘Seagull’ and ‘White Lady’, the differences especially on a picture can be difficult to spot and can be as minute as how much overlap on petals, how blunt or acute the petal tips, the shade of yellow on the cup, does it have orange on the rim, how frilled is it, is it scented PLUS the colour will change as it ages.

Im pretty sure ‘White Lady’ is the lower flower and possibly ‘Firebrand’ top left but I cant be sure

Below is a shot of ONLY ‘Firebrand’ and as you can see the colour and shape alters quite significantly with time.

I wish I could tell you more about historic Narcissus but I feel like im only just learning myself. I do hope that I have tickled your interest though! If you think you might have something special there’s a Facebook group where people share pics and info.

And finally I couldn’t not mention the oldest recorded Narcissus, the Van Sion. Sometimes super messy, sometimes super neat, always a talking point!

Super messy Van Sion

A prime example of this is the Van Sion, one of the oldest recorded varieties dating back to at least 1629 and possibly the messiest!

A slightly neater version

So happy daffy hunting and if you’d like to share your finds with me I’d be delighted to try and help ident them. Although no guarantees!

Please remember to like, comment or share to get this info out there and swing the algorithms so this gets seen, many thanks. I’d also love it if you could follow and get my blog posts straight to your inbox!

2 Replies to “Narcissus – not just a pretty face”

  1. Thanks Lou … great wee story, lots of hard work for you, much appreciated.

    Best wishes


    Liked by 1 person

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