finding golden gems

Patones de Arriba, Spain
Patones de Arriba, Spain

Mr. Eric,

As I sit and type this, I wonder what type of spring weather you are having at the moment. From here, it seems that the East Coast of the U.S. has been buried under many snow storms this winter, something I don’t get to experience living here in Madrid, and to be honest, I do miss it.  The only snow I see is the view of the snow capped mountains from the terrace, which is a wonderful sight but is not enough for me.  So, with arrival of spring here already, a group of friends and I decided to seek wildflowers in those same mountains, near a very small village called Patones de Arriba, just a short drive outside of Madrid.

IMG_4575 IMG_4572The almond trees are the first to flower here and from afar they seemed to be the only plants in bloom, lighting up the rocky hillsides.  The olive groves we passed through were sometimes the perfect backdrop to the white blossoms, a picturesque scene of the beginning of a Mediterranean spring.

IMG_4669Trudging further up the loose and stony paths, higher up into the mountain, the flora changed from open grassy areas to a shrubby layer of Cistus and large areas of the faint blue blooms of Rosemary, Rosmarinus officinalis. It’s a funny sight when when you see your herbs all grown up. For a short while there was a light snowstorm which felt like I was in a dream, similar to when Dorothy was in the field of red poppies in the Wizard of Oz. It was a beautifully surreal moment.  IMG_4658 Then there was a glimpse of gold, near the base of a Rosemary shrub. I was shocked at finding Narcissus and it was in bloom!!  This is my first time I have seen Narcissus in the wild.  Since hunting for wildflowers in Israel, when I found my first wild tulip, it has always been a goal to find Narcissus but never succeeded.  Either it was too late or I only found the remaining greens swollen with seed. So this was an exciting moment for me, another wildflower off the list.  These Narcissus were Narcissus pallidulus and were usually were found in small groups here and there, never in large swathes,  only a cluster 1-3 plants in an area.  After that moment of discovering them, I saw them growing near the Rosemary seen throughout the hillside.  Now I hope to find more types of Narcissus throughout other parts of Spain. Seeing these in there natural state makes their more common showy cultivars currently growing on my terrace, seem so brash and vulgar now. IMG_4702  I look forward to more plant excursions like this in the future and will keep you updated on any new finds. Hope this finds you well and with spring at your doorstep, finally…  Speak soon my friend- James


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 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

Backhouse Daffodil

‘You can cut all..’


You can cut all the flowers but you cannot keep spring from coming. – Pablo Neruda, Chilean poet

île de jonquilles

Dear Jimmy,
Your post on daffodils reminded me how late spring has been this year in eastern U.S. Winter has been behaving like a dinner guest whose welcome has gone beyond stale, hence our ‘Tete-a-Tete’ and ‘Ice Follies’ have not flowered as they usually do at this time. The daffodils are only emerging, buds intact and tightly sheathed against the elements. However, their resilience has always reassure that winter has relinquished its grip, ushering in spring without delay. I long for warm days, with snow having lost its novelty.  My friends’ photographs in the Pacific Northwest already show Corylopsis, rhododendrons, and various spring ephemerals in full glory.
Narcissus 'Ice Follies' flowering early April in the Orchard at Chanticleer - these bulbs are only beginning to emerge now, and their late appearance indicates how late spring has been.
Narcissus ‘Ice Follies’ flowering early April in the Orchard at Chanticleer – these bulbs are only beginning to emerge now, and their late appearance indicates how late spring has been.
Islands seem to be flush with daffodils – the Isles of Scilly off the southwest coast of Cornwall, UK, and Tasmania. Warm sunny summers and cold moist winters on the islands create optimal conditions for growing bulbs. The mild climate in the Isles of Scilly allowed the islanders the bragging rights to the first daffodils of the UK, as well as a head start on the cut flower industry; large quantities of cut daffodils were dispatched by boat and then transported on the rail from Penzance to London. In fact, cut flowers formed the cornerstone of the Scillionian economy for over 130 years. The majority, if not all daffodils grown are tazetta-types, which produce up to 15 highly scented flowers per stem. Tazettas need dry warm summers during dormancy for successful flowering, and the long season of Isles of Scilly from May to August, combined with sandy soils, makes a significant difference. Another crucial factor in the industry’s success was the use of windbreaks, an absolute necessity on the gale-exposed islands. Growers depended on two salt-tolerant and wind-resistant New Zealand shrubs, Pittosporum crassifolium and Olearia traversii
A daffodil farm and garden at Isles of Scilly Photo Credit: The Cornwall Coast by Arthur L. Salmon (1910)
A daffodil farm and garden at Isles of Scilly Photo Credit: The Cornwall Coast by Arthur L. Salmon (1910)
Daffodils are popular in Tasmania where the Tasmanian Daffodil Council promotes them.  You can expect at least three months of daffodils if varieties selected for different bloom periods are planted, and the cold nights certainly enhance flower longevity. The nucleus of Tasmania’s daffodil industry began in the 1920s when several enthusiasts imported bulbs from England and started breeding programs themselves. Their work was exhibited at the Hobart Horticultural Society’s annual daffodil show. Dr. Tim Jackson, one of the early enthusiasts, eventually started a business still going strong today. Evidently his passion rubbed off on the second generation, and one of the Jacksons who fought in the World World II even kept a pot on the British naval warship HMS Wanderer. A cousin, a warplane navigator, was once invited to a country estate near his airfield where the owner boasted a new daffodil, exclaiming: “You’ll have never seen anything like this before”. One only can imagine the owner’s surprise when the cousin recognized the hybrid and credited its origin to his grandfather.
On a blustery gray day, my friends and I drove out a hour away for an open day hosted by Jackson Daffodils near the Southwest National Park, a scenic area. Their bulbs can be bought from an Oregon firm who sells them for a princely sum. They are not the ‘bulk bag’ types one can purchase inexpensively at the local home improvement center. The fields were resplendent with varieties in whites, yellows, oranges, and pinks, and the gusts played up the flowers’ robust gaiety. Even my friend’s dog was excited, recharged by the new scents of the landscape. Who knew how much glee these flowers imparted? Forgetting the dull skies, we left smiling from the simple pleasure of seeing them.
Daffodil fields at Jackson Daffodils, Surges Bay, Tasmania, Australia
Daffodil fields at Jackson Daffodils, Surges Bay, Tasmania, Australia
Across from my friends’ coastal property used to be a commercial bulb farm that exported bulbs and cut flowers to the mainland. Although the majority of the bulbs were dug up and sold before the operation ceased, surviving remnants still sprout defiantly each spring. I learned from my friend that flowering bulbs can be dug up and transplanted without problems, taking out the problematic guesswork that accompanies dying or dormant bulbs. The bulbs need to be planted deep. After obtaining permission, he was able to replicate those naturalistic groups of daffodils without that hodgepodge effect. At first I was skeptical, only to be convinced the following spring when the same bulbs returned to flower. They look terrific under the vibrant green drapery of silver birches.
Tazettas have been 'rescued', collected in a wheelbarrow, and wait to be transplanted.
Tazettas have been ‘rescued’, collected in a wheelbarrow, and wait to be transplanted.
No matter how many bulbs we dug up, there were always more. The sandy loam soil made it easier to retrieve the entire plants, bulb and all, easily from the ground. Occasionally we did accidentally cleave a bulb, but once you gained experience, you were able to gauge how deep and what angle your spade went in, teasing out the plants out without much damage.
Glowing under the clear Tasmanian skies, daffodils, remnants of a bulb farm, still return despite the ground being plowed.
Glowing under the clear Tasmanian skies, daffodils, remnants of a bulb farm, still return despite the ground being plowed.
The Iberian peninsula (Portugal and Spain) is considered the centre of diversity for Narcissus. Several years ago, I remember seeing wild white daffodils growing in wild scrub near the Spanish border – we never disembarked from the car to identify the species. Perhaps one of the days you will have a chance to drive to northern Spain and bear witness to fields of wild daffodils.  Sad as Narcissus and Echo’s fates were in Greek mythology, a love affair with daffodils is hardly narcissistic.
A bouquet of various daffodils connect with the bright yellows and blues of the abstract painting in a private home.
A bouquet of various daffodils connect with the bright yellows and blues of the abstract painting in a private home.

besides narcissism


In keeping with the narcissus theme this week,  we turn to another use for a mirror besides fawning over your own reflection. Who doesn’t love a good mirror trick? Anytime there are large drifts of snowdrops I can’t resist to cut some to bring indoors.  The soft sweet smell they emanate is similar to honey, and the fine beauty can be appreciated once brought closer to eye-level.  There is more beauty when you look under the bloom, at the inner segments, where one can appreciate the different details, in markings, shapes and colors many of them possess.  These differences are what drive galanthophiles crazy when collecting the tiny bulbs.  In order to see these differences more easily I have started placing the arrangements on top of a mirror, getting the best of both worlds.  I have heard that when visiting gardens, some galanthophiles walk around outside with mirrors attached to canes and just move the mirror underneath the blooms so they can forgo having to get on their knees while still noting the unique traits each clump has.  Saves for dirty knees too.

This trick works well for a table during a meal or drinks with friends, plant lovers or not, who can enjoy the blooms more than they would outside. It can be used for other downward facing blooms, like Helleborus, which are just as beautiful when admired up close and am sure there are other blooms that would benefit from this arrangement too. Any suggestions?  – James

a tête-à-tête

Narcissus at Madrid Botanical Garden
Narcissus at Madrid Botanical Garden

 Mr. Eric,

As I sit at my desk and write this to you, the Narcissus ‘Tete-a-tete’ that I have planted on my terrace are now fiercely glowing silhouettes, brightly backlit by the sun that is also shining warmly on my face.  The smiling sun is a nice change from the cooler temperatures and gray days and from this late winter flu I have been entertaining these days.  Spring is almost here, I can almost smell it hence this cold, but the last day of winter is officially March 19th, so we are just about out of the woods.  From the windows, I can see the leaf buds of Platanus x hispanica swelling up and pulling away from the branches, just about ready to open.


I haven’t been outside much the past few days but besides getting enough rest and drinking plenty of teas I have surrounded myself with multiple vases of these little striking yellow blooms to make myself feel better, a little extra sunshine inside. Who wouldn’t smile because of that?! Most everybody loves the Narcissus, for their own reasons, but for many it heralds the triumphant return of spring and an end to the long, cold months of winter.  But why else do we love it and what is it about them? Is it the piercing yellow color that demands the attention of our eyes in an otherwise still drab landscape? The color alone,  reminiscent of the sun,  invokes an uplifting feeling of happiness  and cheerfulness. Is it maybe because the rest of bloom parade is not far behind in the marching procession of blossoms known as spring? So while admiring them from my reclined position, the stories and symbolism of Narcissus started playing out in my medicated head….

Narcissus 'Fortune'


The Narcissus has been a subject for writers and artists for more than 20 centuries, often-symbolizing rebirth, new beginnings and  representing luck and prosperity. Could that be the reference in the cultivar Narcissus ‘Fortune’ as seen above? Giving daffodils as a bouquet  is said to ensure happiness to the receiver but remember to  always present them in a bunch  because though the cheerful flower is associated with good fortune it might forebode misfortune if given as a single boom.  Could this be why they are sold in florist shops in bunches rather than single blooms as other flowers?

Naturalized Narcissus at Great Dixter
Naturalized Narcissus at Great Dixter

There is one story about Narcissus and Echo that I love. I owe my introduction and love for Greek Mythology to  Edith Hamilton, when I purchased her book, Mythology, while doing research for a school report as a young kid.  I still have that same book packed away in New York, and escaped through all of the images those stories painted in my mind. But, yes, the story back to the story….

 Narcissus was a young man of immense beauty who broke the hearts of many lovers along the way, lastly in his mortal life was the wood nymph Echo. Narcissus not paying attention to anyone else and constantly looking at his own reflection in a pool of water, falls in love with himself, thinking of no one else. This is how he spends his time, leaning continuously over the pool and gazing, until he discovered he could not embrace his reflection and soon enough he fell into the water and drowned, with the gods immortalizing him as the narcissus. The story of Narcissus in Greek mythology, is a sad one where the flower symbolizes self-esteem and vanity.

Naturalized Narcissus in the garden of William Robinson at Gravetye Manor
Naturalized Narcissus in the garden of William Robinson at Gravetye Manor

There is a wonderful poem to read of this story, written by the American poet Fred Chappell

Narcissus and Echo, a poem

by Fred Chappell

Shall the water not remember  Ember
my hand’s slow gesture, tracing above  of
its mirror my half-imaginary  airy
portrait? My only belonging  longing;
is my beauty, which I take  ache
away and then return, as love  of
teasing playfully the one being  unbeing.
whose gratitude I treasure  Is your
moves me. I live apart  heart
from myself, yet cannot  not
live apart. In the water’s tone,  stone?
that brilliant silence, a flower  Hour,
whispers my name with such slight  light:
moment, it seems filament of air,  fare
the world becomes cloudswell.  well.

bouquet sketcbouquet sketch in oil pastel and pencil, and mixed bouquet against vintage textile,bouquet sketch in oil pastel and pencil, and mixed bouquet against vintage textile, both by J.McGrath
bouquet sketch in oil pastel and pencil, and mixed bouquet against vintage textile, both by J.McGrath

The meaning and symbolism behind this flower has inspired many writers to artists and will continue to do so for a long time to come.  In Kate Greenaway’s Language of Flowers –  it is listed twice, once by the common name daffodil where it means regard and in its latin form Narcissus we see it listed as egotism. You choose.   Salvador Dali, Caravaggio, John William Waterhouse, and Poussin, among countless others have been inspired when putting brush to canvas,  using the the subject and the stories behind it as their muse.

display beds at Madrid Botanical Gardens
display beds at Madrid Botanical Gardens

The blooms are out in full force here in Madrid, and hope they are not too far behind for you in Pennsylvania, spring will be banging on your front door    soon enough.   By the way, did you know that ‘tete-a-tete’ means a face-to-face meeting, or a private conversation between two people?  It’s been nice chatting with you and I hope  these images and stories find you well and smiling……      -James


‘I would rather…’

Echo and Narcissus – John William Waterhouse, 1903 (

I would rather die than you should have me!‘ – Narcissus to Echo

Narcissus in vase