A study of detail: El Escorial, Madrid


North of Madrid, standing at the foothills of the Sierra de Guadarrama, is the enormous complex known as the Escorial Monastery, which was built at the end of the 1500’s. Originally created as the retreat of King Philip II, the historical Spanish site includes a monastery and is surrounded on two sides with formal gardens.  These gardens, which were built on a large terrace, hug right up against the vast and impressive building, softening the transition into the open mountainous landscape just beyond the reaches of the palace. Scale and proportion are functions in unity between the building and the garden, with perspective playing a key part to the success of its layout.

The finer the view, the simpler the garden should be and this holds true here as the formal gardens are largely made up of clipped hedges, save for the white roses grown against the foundation of the immense building. In the past, the beds between the hedges were filled with bedding plants to look like beautiful carpets when viewed from the windows above, though this type of planting is no longer executed.  All is not lost on the design though, as the long unbroken walks used throughout are perfect for strolling and philosophizing, which was probably the purpose this garden served when the king walked these gardens during his time..


“There is no “The End”…


“There is no “The End” to be written, neither can you, like an architect, engrave in stone the day the garden was finished; a painter can frame his picture, a composer notate his coda, but a garden is always on the move.”     –   Mirabel Osler, English writer and garden designer

A Public Call for Backhouse Daffodils

A few months ago, we received an email at Plinth et al. from a woman named Caroline, who was seeking information or help regarding certain Narcissi. In doing our best to help, we asked that she elaborate on her story so it could be shared with our readers and others, with the goal of helping Caroline in her search for her family’s bulbs. We ask that after reading this, to kindly share this incredible story with others, through email or other social media outlets to help Caroline and the Backhouse family find the bulbs that are missing from their collection. Thank you so much for your help. – James

rofsieartsgardendaffodils copy      Through my mother’s line I am a direct descendent of the Backhouse family, well known horticulturists and daffodil breeders. During the garden replanting and renovation work, my mother suggested it would be a good idea for a member of the family to collect together the remaining Backhouse-bred or introduced plants and bulbs before they are lost to time. My husband and I seem to have entered into a lifetime commitment to the Backhouse daffodils and plants which to date has been demanding and hard work but is certainly the loveliest, most uplifting and exciting project to be engaged in. We are sending this ‘call out’ to anyone who has or knows of a named Backhouse daffodil or plant which they would either photograph and send for our reference material or donate or sell one or two bulbs to the Backhouse Heritage Daffodil Collection in Fife, Scotland. If you are a commercial nursery or horticultural institution with a shipping license. I can send a list of ‘most wanted’ cultivar names, which are also on our web site.  We are in the process of seeking National Collection Status for the daffodils. We are not for profit for this is a true labour of love!

Rofsie Estate, Narcissus 'Dick Wellband'
Rofsie Estate, Narcissus ‘Dick Wellband’

We are grateful for the invaluable help we have already received in the ongoing process of gathering together bulbs and images for identification of the Backhouse Daffodils from members of our family, RHS Library at Vincent Square London and the former Daffodil Registrar Sally Kington, RHS Wisley, members of the UK Daffodil Society, Dr David Willis, Jan Dalton, Kew Gardens Archive Library, the American Daffodil Society, and Lynn Batdorf.

Six years of hard but very enjoyable work has gone by in the restoration of the garden, now a beautiful collection of Backhouse Heritage Daffodil cultivars that greet visitors to Rofsie Arts Garden in Spring. They are preceded by Galanthus ‘James Backhouse’, G. ‘Alison Hilary’ and G. ‘Mrs Backhouse Spectacles’.  Erica carnea ‘James Backhouse’ flowers on Monastery walk beside the walled garden.  Later in the year Lavandula angustifolia ‘James Backhouse’, Correa backhouseana or Backhouse Australian fuchsia along with tree ferns and other plants which were for sale at the Backhouse Nursery during their heyday in the 1800s, growing happily in the garden and glass house.

Narcissus 'Niveth'
Narcissus ‘Niveth’

Backhouse Daffodils changed daffodil breeding forever – William Backhouse, the first of the daffodil breeding dynasty, whose great achievement was breeding the stately Narcissus ‘Emperor’ and the bicoloured N.‘Empress’ in 1865. These cultivars are two of the first triploid bulbs to be raised by a daffodil breeder; although Backhouse would not have known about the word chromosome, he had succeeded in increasing the chromosome count from diploid (14 chromosomes) to triploid (21 chromosomes). Modern daffodils with lineage of these two daffodils in their breeding still dominate divisions 1 and 2 and are still strongly present in division 3 of the RHS Daffodil Register. There has long been a debate about these two daffodils’ parentage—indeed there is a letter from Copeland to Mrs. RO Backhouse asking her as to the parentage, however it is generally accepted that James Backhouse a well-known horticulturist and Williams first cousin’s account in the Garden Magazine is correct –  the parentage is believed to be  Narcissus pseudonarcissus and Narcissus bicolor. However William Backhouse’s great legacy was to create the first known tetraploid cultivar N.’Weardale Perfection’. At its peak ‘Weardale Perfection’ was the clear leader amongst daffodils for its huge bi-coloured flower more than five inches in diameter and its stem at least two foot tall, and was in the greatest demand at the time. Nearly all modern cultivars are tetraploid because they are healthy and strong and the possibilities of which the genes can sit on the chromosomes are vast and varied.  ‘Weardale Perfection’ has long been superseded by its grandchildren and great grandchildren but such is the enduring appeal of Narcissus ‘Weardale Perfection’ and triploids N.‘Emperor’ and N.‘Empress’ still in commerce today. William’s son RO Backhouse continued in the family tradition breeding hundreds of seedlings, perhaps his best known being N.‘Backhouses Giant’ and one of his most lovely N.’Lune de Miel’, his wife Sarah Elizabeth Dodgson was a very able daffodil breeder, Engleheart himself a giant in the daffodil world wrote it was possible for people to discern in her work “the vast difference between talent and genius”.  Sarah achieved national fame being awarded the Royal Horticultural Society’s Barr Cup in 1916, and in 1923 Robert astounded the horticultural world with the first pink daffodil which he named ‘Mrs. R. 0. Backhouse’. Robert and Sarah’s son, William Ormiston Backhouse continued the family tradition set by his grandfather. He specialized in red-trumpeted daffodils one of his most notable achievements being ’Brer Fox’, a Division 1 red trumpet.Rofsie Arts Garden

We believe it’s important to find and save these lovely flowers. Our search for the lost daffodil cultivars has involved driving literally thousands of miles at springtime, making maps of sites we have taken daffodils from (always with permission) on many occasions in sleet, rain and wind which has almost taken me off my feet! There are over 27,000 daffodil cultivars registered in the RHS Daffodil Register, making identification of historic varieties uncommon in commerce today very difficult. We have been particularly lucky in this task for two reasons. Firstly we are not for profit, we are doing this to create a living library of daffodils to save the genetic heritage and achievements of three generations of Backhouse daffodil breeders’ groundbreaking work for posterity. Happily we have found people who want to help with this labour of love in identification.  Secondly the older generation in the families can still remember the names of some daffodils, what the flowers looked like and which gardens the plants might still be growing . On occasion they still live in the same family homes and know which daffodils are growing in the garden. We have learnt  a lot about the family during this process as often a great aunt or uncle tells us why the daffodil name is of personal significance whether it is named after them or a special place, person or event or family achievement..  When this aural history matches the images we have and the daffodil description in the register it gives us added surety of the cultivar names, we have amassed many pictures with the help of the archives, organizations and people aforementioned from contemporary bulb catalogues or images from horticultural magazines, photographs taken by family  and contemporaneous paintings which have proved invaluable in this task. Each year, the daffodil collection is growing. There is a buzz of excitement in the air as spring brings the blooms, and we hope to be able to find some of the missing ones or gain images so we can identify the nameless Backhouse daffodils.

Backhouse Narcissus
Backhouse Narcissus

If you know of a named Backhouse Daffodil Cultivar in a collection and can spare a bulb or two for the Backhouse Collection of Daffodils or have a Backhouse Daffodil photo we would very much like to hear from you. Donations of bulbs or visual material are commemorated, but we will also respect your wish to remain anonymous.

Please contact Caroline via the web site www.rofsie-estate.com if you would like to support the Backhouse Heritage Daffodil Collection

Artists call for submissions – Rofsie Arts Garden in Fife Scotland is hosting its second annual Art Exhibition – the theme this year is ‘A Response to Gardens and Gardening’ and the exhibition will run throughout July.  If you are an artist interested in showing your work in this unique and beautiful space, with a characterful vernacular building also available for indoor exhibition space, please send images of your work and a CV to our web site email address below. Deadline for submission of images May 20th. We only take a small commission – enough to cover exhibition costs but you will be responsible for insurance transportation and return of any unsold work.(we can carefully repack unsold work in its original packing for uplift) If you have any further questions please contact Caroline via the web site.

Contact details for Caroline via the web site www.rofsie-estate.com

Backhouse Daffodil

The Shift

IMG_2417Every year it happens, it’s a seasonal, cyclical, and mental shift occurring earlier or later outside of our control. Time flies by,  with spring swirling into summer, too entranced by the beauty of the garden to stop and breathe. The early seasons are extroverts, flaunting us with blossoms who boast with color or scent, parading past us day after day. It’s happening already here in Holland, the chill of autumn has seeped through the boundaries of the garden, with each morning met through a shroud of fog and green Parthenocissus foliage already tinged red. It is impossible to ignore the shift between these two seasons,  plants begin to slow down, the work load lightens and the atmosphere becomes moody, making the same garden full of a new set of emotions. The introspective seasons have started their approach and have turned DeWiersse into a foreign film, as a voyeur I watch the details change rapidly in front of my eyes, with nothing left to do except accept it. In a few weeks I leave my favorite garden for the second time in my life, already prepping for the last day I have to spend in this paradise. We can’t slow the shifting of time, but finding the beauty in these changes makes it more beautiful.  – James
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Next generation

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Seed collecting as seen in Germany

Engrossed in the activities of summer gardening, there are many things I notice as I look around, stake those plants, collect seed from that plant, water the glasshouse, water the pots, deadhead, harvest seed from that plant, drink some water, move those plants…  Happy to be so busy, but not so happy when I finally do get to collect those seeds, only to see that the plant has already dispersed them, a missed opportunity.  As I get older as a gardener, experience has taught me some tricks, and no longer miss the opportunity of collecting seed for next years plants.  In Germany, I have seen fine netting placed to catch seed  that might otherwise get lost in the wind, one approach.  As a student at Great Dixter, we used to collect seed before it was ready, placing them on the windowsills to dry and ripen to save for the following year.  Often, Poppies are removed from the border before the seed heads open and I place them on a tray or in a bag, which when left for a week or two, will catch all the spilling seed, which are then labeled in a container.  Small plates are all over the windowsill now, filled with hollyhock, digitalis and verbascum seed,  ripening for next year. No more missed opportunities for the next generation. – James

ripe Papaver somniferum seed spilling onto baking tray


Pressed Poppies

Poppy heads and watercolor paints

A garden is a fantasy land for children, running and hiding amongst all the foliage and color, screaming and laughing, playing til exhaustion like any child should.  Another fun way to show and include them in the magic and creativity that can come from plants is something as simple as taking interesting seed heads that can be used as stamps. By taking a number of different dried flower heads for size, we used dried Poppy heads, specifically Papaver commutatum and P. sommniferum, and then mixed them with watercolors (used thickly).  The designs can be used for a number of things. Cards were made using a play on flower motifs, from garden, to cut bouquet, to vase which were soon sent off by mail to friends. An activity like this is one more way to engage children in the beauty of the garden. May induce fits of giggles….  – James

the stages of a bouquet


next stop, Atocha


In the modern age of travel, where speed and efficiency is a necessity, it is far and few between that a large public transportation hub beckons you with its beauty to stay and linger for a while. Sure, there are some beauties such as Grand Central Station that offer up visual delights in its main hall, but this place, Atocha Station, breaks all the normal rules of a train station. Rather than rushing through, governed by the need to reach your final destination, this station offers the chance to slow down and disconnect from the surrounding hustle and bustle, amidst a true urban jungle.


Atocha station is the largest operator of trains in Madrid, and due to the capital city’s central location , it is responsible for connecting some of the major cities throughout Spain. By way of high-speed trains, it is credited with getting commuters to and from places throughout the country, such as Seville, Zaragazova, and Barcelona and Valencia, the second and third largest cities respectively.


The original station was declared open during the winter of 1851 but forty years later it was destroyed by fire, rebuilt again by a man named Alberto de Palacio Elissagne.  Fast forward to 1992, and the Atocha terminal saw itself undergoing a new renovation project, the installation of an indoor tropical garden that sits within the main concourse, of an expansive size of 4,0000 square meters (13, 123 sq.ft).

Living amidst the hustle are plants like the Sabal palmetto
some plants offer the passing public a sheltered refuge, on the right is Ravenala madagascariensis (also known as the Traveler’s Palm, ironic?)

IMG_5949 Overhead, glass skylights provide enough sufficient light to help over 7,000 plants tropical plants (and a fully stocked turtle pond) grow and live within this mesmerizing lush urban space.  -James


Thank you Mr. Robinson


When the opportunity comes up to work in a garden of historic importance, you take it, and you experience lessons that are tied in to the spirit of the place that can’t be learned elsewhere.  I had been down this road before with other gardens I had the opportunity to work at and was excited for Gravetye to tell me its story.  Having read the writings of William Robinson and seeing pictures of Gravetye Manor had only fed my fascination for the place even more for what seemed like a wild and mysterious paradise.  For you see, it is not just a house, nor a garden, but together a piece of history that changed the way many garden, both then and now.  So when the chance came up to work in this garden so rich in history, I took it because you learn things that only that place can teach, where you get to immerse yourself in history and live inside of its story.

Starting at the end of the autumn season, in September 2012, seemed like the right time to begin though I was barely able to get to see the garden before it plunged itself into a deep winter slumber.  Able to catch a short glimpse of the gardens before dormancy, I realized it was just a slight teaser of what was to come during my time there.  A year before us seems a long time to have, but looking back we realize how fast time escapes us, flying past at a dizzying rate.


The winter was long, very long, but this is the best time to get to know the bones of a garden, the structure that holds it all together, before it dresses itself in the its gaudy garb that spring can sometimes provide.Winter seemed to last longer than ever before and just when it seemed too much to bear, the sun came and brought the garden slowly back to life.


Cracking the earth open, the bulbs came springing forth out of the meadow, supplying the colors our eyes were so desperate and hungry for. It seemed like a dream, imagining William Robinson and his then team of 30 gardeners plunging tools into the ground, placing each bulb one by one during its early stages.


The rest of the garden followed suit, and with the long cool spring that was provided these symphonies


spilled into each other, creating beautiful melodies that in other years only seem to pass too quickly..



William Robinson was a man of genius, going against the grain of Victorian gardening trends everywhere during his time and pioneering the more natural and relaxed way of planting areas at Gravetye known as the wild garden. We need teachers like this or we don’t evolve, things become too stagnant, and he is responsible for pushing ahead a new way of thinking about plants that continues to evolve today.



Sometimes looking up from a garden bed, it was easy to imagine William Robinson and Gertrude Jekyll, who were close friends for over 50 years, discussing which plants were worth putting in the border. They often helped each other with garden designs and shared their favorite plants between them.


To live in a garden is to know it intimately, understanding when to catch plants in their best light.


Then there is the shift that all gardeners know, that shift in our bones, in temperature, and we realize we are seeing one season fade and bleed into the next. IMG_2039

We realize the first act is finished with more to follow, and a whole new cast of characters are about to appear on stage.


Didn’t someone once say that gardening is the slowest form of theater? That couldn’t be more true.



There are many plants that I learned about during my time here, and there are many lessons but one thing that William Robinson taught me is that it’s ok to color outside the lines. He taught me to think outside the perimeter of a flower bed, to not be afraid to try new combinations in these areas and he taught me how to soften the landscape with plants.  It is easy to color in the lines, but Robinson has pushed my boundaries, and so has Tom, who continues to see things in new poetic combinations that work so well with Robinson’s gardening theory.


Time continued to tick by and each moment was spent relishing my surroundings, like watching the Long Border, that was only planted in spring, fuse together to create such a tightly woven tapestry.  The act of seeing plants fill a border out in such a rapid pace is astonishing, proving once again the importance of good soil.


Summer soon gave way to mornings of dahlias shrouded in fog, with colors that remind you that autumn was right around the corner.


Does time go so fast, because we gardeners notice all the details happening around us in the garden, causing the season to blur together? Is it because we love what we do so much, that we don’t notice the hands of time spinning in circles so rapidly? But with each circle you come to that point you once started at, knowing that time is about to overlap.


And I soon realized I was seeing moments that I had witnessed a year earlier, my eyes were no longer seeing things that were new to me, but familiar…


And my year at Gravetye had come to an end, and in that time span I encountered so many lessons, large and fragile, and I take all of that forward with me.


Thank you William Robinson for letting me experience your creation, and Tom and team, for educating me in a whole new way of gardening… James

Bloom, cut, repeat

Angelica arrangements

While working in the garden yesterday, I had to remove  some Angelica archangelica, a large hardy biennial  that can reach up to 8 feet ( 2.5 metres) tall in height. Its height, the thickness of its stems, and the blooms are all strong characteristics of this plant.  After removing a few flowering stems,  I took them home and threw this together.   If you find making arrangements intimidating then keep it simple. Take a cue from Karl Blossfeldt by focusing on one detail of a plant, and then simply repeat it by arranging in a group of similar vessels.

Applying the Chelsea Chop

Pruners and Gloves

What is the ‘Chelsea Chop’?

The term Chelsea Chop is one that is commonly used in the English horticulture world and it is in reference to cutting back the growth of certain  summer and autumn blooming perennial plants halfway with your pruners or secateurs.  When cutting these plants back like this, we get a more sturdy plant once it flushes out new growth again and it can also delay bloom time by up to a week. It can also result  in more smaller blooms for autumn perennials such as Asters.  Other plants that can benefit from this are upright Sedums, Phlox, Geraniums and Heleniums. This gardening technique occurs around the end of May, which also coincides with the date of the Chelsea Flower show, hence the name Chelsea Chop.  – J