Discovering Daffodils

It’s a little known fact – so little known that one might almost call it a secret – that the first job I ever applied for was with the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. As a Landscape Architect I would be travelling the world, recommending how to look after these historically important sites. The main attraction was not the work, but the opportunity to visit new and unfamiliar places. When I looked a bit harder, I found the commission’s planting style to be spartan and manicured; totally appropriate for war graves, but a little restrictive for a young creative wishing to spread his wings. I wondered how rewarding the role might be. I didn’t get the job – I don’t even recall being interviewed – and soon found something else to do.

The majority of Britain’s graveyards are not maintained in the same meticulous fashion as war cemeteries. They are, in most instances, considerably older and have expanded slowly, sometimes over several centuries. Disturbance tends to be minimal, whether that be in the form of noise, development or foot traffic. Chemicals are not applied, and maintenance is often reduced to a bare minimum to save money. All of this is an attractive proposition for wildlife, helpful in building biodiversity. Provided a reasonable balance is maintained between the sensitive care of memorials and letting nature run its course, graveyards are one of the more successful examples of humans, plants and animals coexisting in a confined space.

The church of St Peter-In Thanet with its handsome 15th Century flint tower.

Near to where we live is the church of St Peter-In-Thanet. It was first built in 1070, then enlarged in the 12th century. A square tower was added in the 15th century. For hundreds of years, St Peter’s church was the seat of local government. The village of St Peter’s was the largest settlement in the area (Broadstairs did not expand from a fishing village until in 18th & 19th Centuries), hence most of the parish’s great, good and indeed not-so-good are interred here. Some older memorials, close to the church, are very grand indeed. Over time, more and more space was required for burials so that now the graveyard extends to nine acres, a long, narrow finger of green extending north west towards Margate. The newest plots are furthest from the church. These can be identified top left of the photograph below, looking rather more open than the rest of the graveyard. One wonders if additional space will be required in future.

The church of St Peter-In-Thanet is the large, red-roofed building bottom right. Since the 1940’s modern development has engulfed the graveyard, but an air of quiet antiquity remains.

From a wildlife perspective the middle section of the churchyard, where one can find several war graves, is the most interesting. The trees are smaller here, mainly hawthorns and deciduous ornamentals, allowing a meadow rich with flowers to establish beneath them. Here and there, brambles form thickets favoured by birds, and no doubt rodents. Our natural flora is augmented by plants that have escaped from planting on and around the graves themselves. Chief among the interlopers at St Peter’s is the daffodil. Destined to naturalise, daffodil cultivars old and new can be found romping between the gravestones, forming large clumps or scattering themselves artfully around. It’s very possible that they have hybridised, creating daffodils that might only be found in this one spot.

I fancy that all these daffodils might have germinated from one seed head. They are all similar but different, yet grow cheek by jowl.

Daffodils are likely to have been introduced to our country by the Romans from the Iberian Peninsula, but like snowdrops, they’ve been with us for so long as to be considered native. They are certainly very much at home on our shores, both growing wild and being cultivated for flowers and bulbs. The reason they are so successful is that they are brilliantly adapted to our damp, maritime conditions and strongly perennial. It takes a lot to push a clump of daffodils into retreat; even then they may dwindle and refuse to flower rather the die out altogether. Daffodils are survivors, glad of man’s helping hand, but self-sufficient thereafter. Noel Kingsbury sums it up perfectly:

“At the heart ….. is the idea of the daffodil as a metaphor for our relationship with nature, as being a cultivated plant, but one which is capable of living its own life. Like cats, they feel only part domesticated”

Noel Kingsbury, Daffodil, Timber Press.

A daffodil expert might have a field-day in the graveyard at St Peter’s when it is flooded with blooms every spring. They might even gain clues as to the identity of each variety based on the age of the graves they are growing near: it might be pure coincidence, but the only daffodil we can accurately identify, N. ‘Feu de Joie’, was introduced by William Copeland pre-1927 and is growing close to graves dating back to WW1. It is a beauty, and we will be tracking down bulbs to grow at home next year. This kind of blousy, romantic daffodil was left behind as fashion favoured neater flowers on stronger stems, but to me the form and colouration of ‘Feu de Joie’ is exquisite.

Narcissus ‘Feu de Joie’

We are not daffodil experts, so we spend our time generally enjoying the scene and marvelling at each and every different flower we alight on. Although variations on a theme, the permutations of colour, trumpet and petal are remarkable. Bobbing in a stiff breeze, they bring so much joy and hope for the year to come. Pictured below are just a handful of the varieties in bloom at St Peter’s at the end of March. I’d love to hear which ones appeal most to you.

We’ve experienced such a long, cold spring in 2021 that the daffodils have lasted much longer than normal. In the Jungle Garden, many have yet to bloom, which means we’ll be enjoying flowers well into May. Planned carefully, a succession of bloom can be achieved quite easily, starting with a variety such as N. ‘Cedric Morris’, which will flower in time for Christmas Day, and ending with N. poeticus, which might occasionally hang on until June. Five months is a long time to enjoy daffodils, although some might argue it’s not long enough.

I can recommend a couple of excellent books if you are interested in learning more about daffodils:

  • Daffodil, Biography of a Flower‘, Helen O’Neill, Harper Collins.
  • Daffodil, The remarkable story of the world’s most popular spring flower‘, Noel Kingsbury with photographs by Jo Whitworth, Timber Press.

There’s still time to get out and enjoy daffodils as gardens and parks begin to open up post lockdown. Make a note of your favourites and order bulbs in summer ready for planting in early autumn. For heritage varieties like N. ‘Feu de Joie’, you may need to search the Internet for specialist growers such as Ron Scamp in Cornwall. (It goes without saying that you should never take daffodils from the ‘wild’ or from parks and gardens without permission.) Unlike tulips, daffodils need to be planted before it gets cold in winter, so they can establish their roots in warm earth. They grow well contained in pots, but they’ll never be as happy as they would be in the ground, where they are never very far from claiming their freedom. TFG.

Daffodils and primroses make excellent companions in the garden as well as the graveyard.