Saturday, April 28, 2012

A gothic hunt for heirloom daffodils.

What am I doing wandering around a graveyard at dusk? In the little town of Ullapool in the north-west of Scotland. "I wonder if he'll put this in the book, that the Donalds are mad, spend their evenings in cemeteries" muses my companion. We had been out for supper, a surprisingly good meal in a most unpromising place (reek of stale beer, plastic wood paneled walls, a bizarre painting of bare-breasted women in ancient Egyptian headresses holding a submarine). Passing a graveyard I jokingly suggested we go and look for old daffodils. "This is what we do all the time" said Duncan and Kate Donald, who collect heritage daffodil varieties and are always stopping by the side of the road, old gardens, and churchyards. So in we go. It is a spectacular location, overlooking the loch and the mountains. Kate bends over a clump, cautiously names it, bends over another one - she runs the stem through her fingers - the smoothness or otherwise of a stem can itself be a key to identification. 'Ornatus' she suggests. Duncan says something about always keeping a spade in the back of the car. For one awful moment I wonder whether he is going to go and get it. I can already feel the eyes of the notoriously god-fearing folk of Ullapool upon us, suspecting us of digging up the Presbyterian dead.

Duncan and Kate Donald live and grow their plants in the incredible natural beauty of Loch Ewe on the north-west coast of Scotland. Rows of daffodil clumps are lined up around their cottage and an impressive wind turbine – a reminder that although the climate here is very mild, the wind is a constant. Kate had a childhood love of daffodils, which was rekindled by a scholarship year at Tresco Abbey Gardens on the Scilly Isles in the late 1970s. In 1983 she became RHS Daffodil Registrar, and because of this was asked by the National Trust for Scotland to create a National Collection of daffodils at Brodie Castle. Duncan adds “we got interested in making a collection of old daffodils in the 1980s... I was curator of the Chelsea Physic Garden in London... we had some bad storms then... a large tree blew over on top of a heritage daffodil collection... it really focussed our minds”.

Kate worked as RHS Daffodil Registrar between 1983 and 1986. “I was always more interested in the older varieties” she says, “old varieties which still come up in gardens decades after they have been planted shows they are survivors and therefore proven, unlike modern show varieties which are an unknown quantity”. “We made 1930-1935 our cut off point” explains Duncan, “why?... this was when 'Fortune' derived varieties began to become important... we don't like orange cups, they all look like each other, we don't care for the Fortune look”. That leaves around 7,000 named varieties of which the Duncans now have 400 plus. He went on to explain how “we began to spend a lot of time looking at derelict cottage gardens, and then to ask garden owners for bulbs, and started to build up a reference collection.... we targeted garden owners through our various contacts, for example, people were so often very generous”. 

In 1990 the couple moved to Scotland 1990, and as Duncan explains, “the children got used to the Easter holidays being daffodil time and endless garden visits”. Scottish gardens have often preserved the past better than English ones, and with the climate being a good one for daffodils, they have proved a fruitful territory for tracking down long-forgotten varieties. As time has moved on, and the daffodils have grown they are able to offer a number for sale – wide distribution is always a guarantee of survival. “We want to do for narcissus what Graham Stuart Thomas did for roses” says Duncan.
One particular property, Threave in Dumfries and Galloway, “has been a Rosetta Stone for us” says Duncan. The property had been owned by the Gordons, a family of Liverpool industrialists, who had used the castle as a summer residence. They had regularly bought bulbs over a long period and crucially kept good records. Additionally, in the 1960s an extensive set of notes were made of the old head gardener's knowledge. The Donalds were then in an excellent position to identify daffodils growing in the garden, so far they have named about ninety.

Over the years, the Donalds have worked out an effective methodology for identifying varieties in old gardens. They have systematically gone through old nursery catalogs, held by the RHS's Lindley Library in London, and assembled a database mapping the availability of varieties over time. “The collections for sale in the catalogs are particularly valuable” explains Duncan, “as these would have been bought in bulk and therefore most likely to still be around in gardens... if a garden is known to have been planted up at a particular date or between two dates, then it is possible to go to the catalogue database, and see what was available, narrowing down the possibilities... magazine articles (e.g. The Gardeners' Chronicle) can be a useful source of information about when a particular garden was planted up if the garden itself has no record”. Gardens which do keep archives may sometimes contain invoices from nurseries or bulb dealers, listing varieties, or there may be old catalogues with names marked up.

There is no doubting the rigour of the Donalds' approach. The changes in names resulting from the way daffodil classification systems have worked over the years and duplications in naming have resulted in much confusion. “We are very careful” says Duncan, “every clump is mapped, and has two aluminium labels with the name and accession number impressed onto them, one of which is buried with the bulbs”. He goes on to explain that flowers are systematically photographed, at different angles, and at different times – as flowers can change in appearance considerably over the period in which they are in flower. The eventual aim, apart from making as many varieties available for sale as possible, is a field guide to old daffodils, which will enable anyone with a garden which may have been planted up before the 1930s to identify their bulbs.
Sweetness - a 1939 Jonquil
The Donalds' daffodils are sold through Croft 16.
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Petra/Oxonian Gardener said...

No photo of the bizarre painting? That's a blog post in itself! Gosh, wish you could send Duncan and Kate our way. Recently attempted to identify some of our daffodils ( but discovered that even with the best of (botanical) advice it is a hugely difficult task! Huge admiration for their quest.

carolyn mullet said...

Fascinating. What would we do without people in the garden who have obsessions?

yosef said...

What a beautiful area.