The Backhouse Daffodil Festival

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My, but isn’t spring moving along fast? After a winter that never seemed to end, it’s hard to adjust to the rapid succession of spring flowers that are popping up and fading away faster than I can keep up with them. Once the snowdrops had gone, it was the turn of the daffodils, and the second week in April saw in the Scottish Daffodil Festival, hosted at the home of the of the National Collection of Backhouse cultivars on the Rossie Estate in Fife.

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It was in the 1800s that William Backhouse began to hybridise daffodils, pioneering new techniques and establishing the first in a long dynasty of important cultivars. Successive generations of the Backhouse family continued the work, until an impressive number of significant and popular cultivars were in existence. Now a descendent of the Backhouses, Caroline Thomson, is dedicating her life to collecting together hundreds of missing Backhouse cultivars from across the world, as well as researching, preserving and celebrating the heritage of her forebears.

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Grown in joyful drifts and clumps across the beautiful parkland and gardens, the daffodils make an impressive show. What better celebration of spring than to wander among these lovely things, so varied in their hues of yellow, cream and orange? Daffodils are most certainly a flower that rewards generous planting, and it was impossible not to be impressed by the sheer quantities millions of bulbs that we saw.

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It was fun to imagine the autumn frenzy of sowing, the great barrows of bulbs to be planted, the man-hours, the careful designing and placing, the covering over, and the long anticipation over winter for the results of spring.

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The daffodils themselves rewarded closer inspection. It could be easy to think that some of the more divergent types were hardly from the same species at all. From pure white through cream and pale lemon, to dandelion yellow, sunset orange and even coral, the range of colours presented by the Backhouse daffodils was vast. Added to that the combination of colours within a flower, and you can begin to imagine the variety within such a collection. Take N. ‘Pink Pride’, with its aloof corona of white from which extends a trumpet the colour of diluted brick pink, darkening at the complex crinkles of the margin.

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Compare it to N. ‘Replete’ in colours of poached-egg and smoked salmon, the traditional trumpet transmuted to the appearance of rumpled bedsheets.

The daffodils were not labelled, although this did not detract from our enjoyment of the overall effect. I hope that in future years they may consider labelling some of the cultivars in the walled garden for our education and so that we can seek out and buy our favourites.

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The walled garden itself was an inspiring mix of the formal and informal, with an orchard and a grass labyrinth as well as straight paths and borders full of backlit grasses. I have made a note to return again to see the borders in their high summer glory.

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Observing so many daffodils in one place gave us ample opportunity to decide on our favourite colours. My sister liked the joyful bright yellow ones; they were the most spring-like, she said. I preferred the lemon-yellow and white I spend too much time digging out dandelions to associate brightest yellow with anything other than trouble.

Always with a view to expanding my horizons, I bought a pot of ‘Pink Pride’ from the courtyard of little stalls, where Caroline Thomson herself was promoting and selling her beloved daffodils with great energy. It was such a pleasure to be able to take home a piece of this fascinating heritage, which will bring joy each spring for years to come.

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There were many parts of the estate to go walking. For children (and adults!) there was the ‘bear walk’, where carved wooden bears told a little story along a curving woodland path. For those desiring a longer stroll, there was a path through a newly-planted link wood into ancient woodland, in the midst of which lies the hidden ruined tomb of the covenanter Sir James Scott and his wife Antonia.

Back at the house’s courtyard, a little show room contained the most exquisite daffodils in vases. I made a note of two, ‘Rosemerryn’ and ‘Lemonade’, that caught my eye and which I hope shall find their way into my cutting bed alongside ‘Pink Pride’.

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Narcissus ‘Rosemerryn’

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And now let spring gallop along, for the ordinary daffodils that border our Meadows in Edinburgh are fading fast, as are the forsythias and early tulips. In come the magnolias and blossoming cherries, the late tulips and dicentras, soon the alliums and peonies and before we know it, summer will be with us and gone. But my afternoon at Backhouse was the perfect way to savour a lovely and all-too fleeting moment of spring, during which daffodils range these inspiring woodlands and gardens for all to enjoy.

Backhouse Rossie Estate is near Ladybank, Fife, KY15 7UZ and entrance costs £5 for an adult, with discounts for children, groups and concessions. Entrance for RHS members is free of charge on Fridays.

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19 thoughts on “The Backhouse Daffodil Festival

  1. I see posts like this and think if only I worked on adding 100 bulbs per year for the 28 yrs. I’ve lived here, I’d have an impressive spring display by now. Ah, well.
    N. ‘Rosemerryn’ has such delicate colouring, a real beauty!

    1. Oh I quite agree, Eliza! So hard to motivate oneself in the opposite season of autumn to put in the legwork for a floriferous spring. But if you add a self-seeder it should do some of the work for you…

    1. Thank you Terri – me neither, and it’s a wonderful history. I think the original Backhouses started off in Yorkshire, but the current family are doing their hard work for the legacy in Scotland so both places should get credit.

  2. Oh a daffodil festival sounds like a fine event to celebrate spring Joanna. ‘Rosemerryn’ is a beauty – such a subtle pink flush. I smiled at your words “I spend too much time digging out dandelions to associate brightest yellow with anything other than trouble.” An all too familiar scenario.

  3. What a joy! I suspect those yellow crinkly ones are ‘Rip van Winkle’ one I grew this year. My only objection to it is that it hides its face downwards. I think I shall buy more daffodils this autumn as they give continual pleasure over the tulips which tend to only last one season.

    1. I thought it might be RVW too. They are too energetic for me, although my neighbour has made some charming window-boxes full of them, which I admire every time I walk past. Daffs give wonderful value for the time and (little) money spent on them. Tulips are much more bother.

  4. That Rosemerryn is such a pretty thing. Her delicate trumpet (rather a strong word really) reminds me of a ballerina’s skirt.

  5. Another well-written post Joanna, with some pleasing descriptions. I have never heard of the Backhouse daffodils and wonder if the James Backhouse snowdrop comes from the same background. It is good to read that the owner is trying to collect all the Backhouse varieties together – what a great challenge. I am with you on the less- yellow daffodils but also very much prefer the smaller varieties than their taller counterparts

    1. Thank you Cathy – it does sound plausible about the snowdrop as one of the breeders was called James Backhouse and I am pretty sure I read that they bred other bulbs (and possibly other plants) as well as the daffs. How interesting. This year I have planted (in the green) several clumps of the native daffodil, N. psuedonarcissus, on its merits as a smaller (but not miniature) and paler daffodil. I also like native flowers as they are good for wildlife, and I hope it will spread around a bit. Watch this space next March!

      1. I checked in one of my snowdrop books and it originated in York – probably found and bred from the original specimen, as most new snowdros sem to be (ie accidents). One of my neighbours was talking about how pretty N. psuedonarcissus was in their grass and I was wondering whether to introduce it too.

  6. Looks like a wonderful visit and thanks so much for writing about the Backhouse daffs. I am familiar with the family but mostly through my Martagon lily, ‘Mrs. R.O. Backhouse.’ She’s a beauty and I finally found a photo of Mrs. Backhouse last year. I only plant white or cream daffs and the one you like — ‘Rosemerryn’ — is a stunner. Don’t think I’ve ever seen it offered for sale here. I will have to look for it. That dusty pink edge on the trumpet is just lovely.

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