Cat Coulson

Artwork & Inspirations.

Heirloom Daffodils

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Over the last few weeks the garden has begun to change; as temperatures have risen, the snowdrops have finished, and the daffodils are making their display. There are a few different types around the garden that I was told were old varieties, so i did some research to see what i could discover. They certainly have a lot more leaf and fewer flowers than the swathes of yellow seen in modern plantings, and open in stages rather than all at once which seems more natural in a woodland setting. The daffodils in the orchard are well established, i think they may be Narcissus incomparabilis – the single form of an old variety pre 1600 known as ‘butter and eggs’. They are very attractive and delicate despite their full size, with smaller cups rather than long trumpets. They have perfectly formed pale primrose-yellow petals and the cups differ in colour, some all yellow, and the majority becoming orange towards the tips in varying degrees.

IMG_4549It is interesting to see how the names of varieties have evolved over time; before the introduction of binomial taxonomy in Carl Linnaeus’s (1700–78) Species Plantarum, plant names were given descriptive titles based on observation. Parkinson labelled what I’m sure is the same daffodil as Narcissus Incomparabilis; Narcissus latifolius omnium maximus, amplo calice flauo, fiue Nompareille – this long title translating from Latin to something like broad-leaved, greatest/biggest of all daffodils, with a tapering chalice shaped flute/cup of no equal/ no comparison (nonpareil)… and so becomes known as the great None such Daffodill or Incomparable Daffodill, Narcissus Incomparabilis or Peerless Daffodil.

Further down from the woods towards the house, there are some much larger flowers with trumpets containing whirls of frilly petals, which i believe are the true form of ‘Van Sion’ or Telamonius Plenus – a variety that a plantsman named Vincent Sion finally managed to get to flower in England in 1620. Before he died, he gave the bulbs to the botanist, herbalist and apothecary to James 1st, Parkinson who wrote of it in his published Paradisi in sole paradisus terrestris (1629)- If you are interested in the book, you can view it in the Biodiversity Heritage Library – I have extracted the pages mentioning my two varieties here .

The clumps in the woodland have clear trumpets with the double flower contained inside, but it was only when i saw more of these amongst some flamboyant green streaked blooms at the front of the house that i recognised the variety which proffers these unconfined double bursts when not situated in ideal conditions. It is interesting to have the two variations to compare, and the history behind them is interesting and complex and particularly bizarre in regard to naming this variety –  which has many synonyms such as ‘Master Wilmer’s Great Double Daffodil’ and was wrongly attributed with ‘Van’ for the V. Sion rather than ‘Vincent’.

In his book; Daffodils, Narcissus and how to grow them as hardy plants and for cut flowers with a guide to the best varieties by A. M. Kirby (1907), Kirby describes the difference in characteristics between the flowers depending on their environment producing either the ‘unburst double trumpet type‘ or the ‘rose double – trumpet burst, its petals curving backwards and intermingling with the perianth segments‘. He describes how the unburst trumpets were once preferentially cultivated by nurseries to maintain their true form, but had since been diluted through profiteering growers not discarding the ‘rogues‘.

What is interesting to me is that i have the two distinct varieties in the garden; whether this is a constant thing remains to be discovered, but assuming that is the case, i had wondered whether as my research suggested it was because the moist, shaded woodland was a perfect environment for the true form to thrive, rather than the south-facing open water-meadow where they have burst. However, this author suggests it is more a case of bulb evolution and deterioration – ‘They will never admit anything wrong in their strains.. and yet I know of double trumpet daffodils in old gardens that have annually produced flowers with unburst trumpets for many years, regardless of the too sudden change from winter into summer’. 

A few days ago i saw my neighbour and mentioned the daffodils to him, he told me that they had always been in the woodland, but that the ones at the front had been planted in the last 20 years when the land was cleared. I asked whether the bulbs were split and moved from the woods, but he thought they were new bulbs. If that is so, then the argument for bulb strain being the contributing factor is strong in this case. Perhaps they were planted to match the ones at the back, but have since become ‘rogue’!

Either way for a plant that has never especially interested me, i find this all fascinating, and i will take Kirby’s advice…

‘If you get a good strain of golden-yellow Double Van Sion that produces flowers with unburst trumpets — treasure and keep it, for such are getting scarce’


other reference sources:




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