Part 2 of a series of posts on My Garden in Spring by E. A. Bowles

Jim Thorleifson


My Garden in Spring (c. 1915)

E. A. Bowles (1865 – 1954)



The people who talk about flowers may be roughly divided into two classes, those who ask and those who are expected to answer the question, ” What is the difference between a Narcissus and a Daffodil? ”

I appear to belong to the latter division, and answer, ” None whatever, one being the Latin and the other the English name for the same plant “; but the other class are never satisfied therewith, for they want a difference, and like a certain fretful baby we have all seen pictures of won’t be happy till they get it. So I take down Parkinson’s Paradisus and, having impressed them with the antiquity and authority of that great man, read them his words of wisdom, for he writes: ” Many idle and ignorant Gardeners . . . doe call some of these Daffodils Narcisses, when, as all that know any Latine, that Narcissus is the Latine name and Daffodill the English of one and the same thing; and therefore alone, without any other Epithite cannot properly distinguish severall things.” If that does not subdue their inquisitive spirit Gerard may be called as second witness to testify that ” Generally all the kindes are comprehended under the name Narcissus, in English Daffodilly, Daffodowndilly, and Primerose Peereless.”

Clearly these two great fathers of English gardening saw no difference except of language between a Narcissus and a Daffodil. All the same it would be useful to have a name for those Narcissi that we somehow feel ought not to be called Daffodils, even though we may not be able to find one better than the word Daffodil with some ” other Epithite.” In spite of Gerard and Parkinson we shall be in good company in feeling thus, for Turner in The Names of Herbes writes: ” This that we take for Daffodil is a kind of Narcissus.” So in 1548 it was felt that though all Daffodils were Narcissi yet some Narcissus might not be a Daffodil: but where they gave Parkinson a chance of calling them hard names, was in the way they used the Latin name of the whole genus for certain members of it, instead of choosing some distinguishing English word for that particular group. In much the same way now people use the generic term Viola as though it belonged only to the particular race of perennial garden-raised Violas that have been well named Tufted Pansies. It would be equally wise to start calling the Irish Single Tea roses, Rosas, or those hairy oubits of dogs, the now fashionable Pekinese, Canis.

It is unfortunate that our modern idea of a true Daffodil is not that of Parkinson’s day. Hear him on the subject. “Now to cause you to understand the difference between a true Daffodil and a false, is this: It consists only in the flower, and chiefly in the middle cup or chalice; for that we do in a manner only account those to bee Pseudonarcissos, bastard Daffodils, whose middle cup is altogether as long and sometimes a little longer than the outer leaves that doe encompasse it, so that it seemeth rather like a trunke or long nose than a cup or chalice, such as almost all the Narcissi or true Daffodils have.” In fact all those long-nosed ones which we like to call true Daffodils he calls bastard, which is not a pleasant ” Epithite ” to give to an honest flower.

Still we need not let Parkinson’s views weigh too heavily on our conscience, for does he not include as Narcissi, Sternbergia, Pancratium, and Zephyranthes, this last as he says “ not finding where better to shroud it “? A still more glorious dispensation may be found in Sprekelia’s appearance as the Indian Daffodil with a red flower! Narcissus Jacobaeus!! The vaunted pink daffodils, this year’s most sensational exhibits, cannot vie with this crimson glory. Their stripes or flushed yellow perianths remind one of a hen’s egg that was left too long under the maternal breast to be appetising when boiled, or ” lightly poach ” we will hope, for as Mrs. Green knew, “A poach hegg you sees naked before you, an’ if it ain’t what it should be, back it can go without no committin’ of yourself in the way of a broken shell.”

Furthermore the word Daffodil is such a thoroughly home-made English corruption of Asphodel that it was probably made for our one unquestionably wild species, N. Pseudo-narcissus, the Lent-lily, which is certainly the swallows’ precursor of Shakespeare, and the Daffodil of Herrick and the poets generally.

The initial D has never been satisfactorily accounted for, according to the New Oxford Dictionary, and one must bow down before its pontifical authority, even though one misses certain traditional derivatives that lack documentary support, omitted by its strict plan of relying only on historical evidence. I am sadly disappointed if an English history omits the tale of Alfred the Great’s failure as a cook, and would like to believe many fanciful derivations of words to be true. It is a tempting text for a philological sermon that D, but I must not give you unto fifthly and lastly, so condense it into the half sheet of notes which, if cunningly concealed in a book, gives a preacher or lecturer a reputation for extempore fluency. (1) The D may be due to playful distortion, as in Ted from Edward; (2) part of the definite article; (3) the final d of and, or the Flemish article de. I hope it is the playful friendliness of No. 1.

Anyway in English use it was at first confined to the Asphodel, then confused with the Narcissus, some think through both plants once bearing the fanciful name Laus tibi, but I would rather try to believe it was from a desire to find some wild English equivalent for the Asphodel,* and what would give us as flowery a mead as the wild Lent-lily? Both Turner and Lyte testify to this confusion. Turner speaks of ” Asphodillus … in English whyte affodil or duche daffodil.” Lyte writes of his third kind of Asphodel ” in English also Affodyl and Daffodyl.” Botanists, after unsuccessfully resisting this misapplication, compromised the matter by retaining affodil for the Asphodel, and accepting the more popular daffodil for the Narcissus, which has lived on as a familiar word, while the other has been rectified to a form nearer its classic original. That Daffodil is Affo dyle, ” that which cometh early ” has been confidently asserted by some (see Sowerby’s English Botany for an instance), but is ignored by the Oxford Dictionary, and as I have found no evidence for it beyond bare assertions, this time I thankfully avail myself of the authority of the great work. Again, that Saffron-lily has given us Daffadowndilly, and thence Daffodil, is argued by Dr. Prior, but he confesses the explanation is merely conjectural, and wants the test of historical evidence. It is a modern idea, though, that a Daffodil must be yellow, for both Parkinson and Gerard speak freely of white Daffodils, in describing N. poeticus, both double and single, and also for polyanthus varieties, so there is no reason why we should not talk of Poet’s Daffodils instead of using the Latin name Narcissus for that group or we might revive Gerard’s name Narcisse for them, and Parkinson’s name Peerless Daffodil seems to me a charming one for the Incomparabilis section, better than the contemporary ones ” nonpareille,” ” nonesuch,” and ” incomparable,” and the hideous modern nick-name of ” incomps ” one often hears from the lips of Daffodil growers. Then the scientific name Narcissus might be reserved for botanical purposes, when the species or their wild hybrids and varieties are referred to.

[* Turner, Herbal, I. b. iii. 6, supports this: ” I could never se thys herb (asphodelos ryght affodil) in England but ones, for the herbe that the people calleth here affodil (or daffodill) is a kind of narcissus.”]

Do not expect me to write of the Daffodils of this garden as an expert. I sit among the great of the Daffodil world, and see their latest productions, but the garden knows them not. Birds must be of a feather to flock together, and Croesus and White Emperor consort not with paupers. So I have no list of latent novelties to make your mouths water, only some few that, though neither new nor worth double figures in pounds, yet are beautiful enough to be worthy of a sentence or two. Many are mementoes of kind friends and their richly-stored gardens.

I shall begin with my greatest favourite, Dawn, a very appropriate name for a first comer. I need hardly describe so well-known and much-shown a flower, but must rejoice in some of its good points. It has a butterfly expression in the reflexed white perianth and the graceful way the segments stand out at rather variant angles, especially where the twin flowers of each stem touch each other, and push the segments forward, and cause their tips to bend over. The slender stem and pendant twin flowers make it charming as a cut flower, and the flat, yellow cup is of such a pure colour that it sets off the white perianth to perfection. I have hitherto grown it in the peach-house border, a warm and sheltered home reserved for new and precious plants until they increase enough to send out their offspring to test their powers of endurance in less secure quarters. It is a long, narrow bed facing due south, backed by the peach-house and its low wall, with water-pipes, heated in Spring, just behind it. It has been a successful nursery for many a good thing, when not only protection from chills, but also constant watching is advisable. I believe many a treasure has done better here, because the border is so narrow, and the delicate things are so easily got at to be fingered, or have their surrounding soil pressed down or scratched up, or some other slight attentions paid to them, which sometimes make all the difference to a plant while still half-hearted about living and growing, much as those of a watchful and tactful nurse can help an invalid to recovery. Next Spring I hope to see Dawn out of this nursery, or nursing home, and waving its butterflies in the rock garden. I have not outgrown my admiration of Weardale Perfection. There may be more beautiful bicolors for millionaires, but they have not come my way yet. Lord Muncaster was taking a proud place in lists quite lately at six guineas each, and I felt much inclined to sell all mine but one, and lay out the result in Weardales, but I have never yet sold a plant, and I hope I am too old to begin. So his lordship is still here.

I will try to tell you what charms I find in Weardale. It is quite large enough for me. I do not want to sit under a trumpet during a shower. Beyond a certain point, size nearly always means coarseness, and I greatly dislike the huge race of trumpet Daffodils so much to the fore in some Dutch gardens. A small man might almost feel nervous of looking down some of their trumpets, for fear of falling in and getting drowned in the honey, and a life-belt or two should be hung among the beds. As we have not yet come to viewing our gardens from aeroplanes, we can do without Rafflesia Arnoldii in the rock garden, and the Waterbutt Trumpet Daffodil for mixed’ borders. Even the loveliest of fair damsels, magnified to the size of two and a half elephants, would be an appalling object to the stock-sized suitor, and until I have to take to much stronger spectacles, Weardale is large enough for me.

I like its proportions: the trumpet has not ceased to be a trumpet and become instead a gramophone’s mouth-piece, but the wide, overlapping perianth segments make the balance more perfect than would be the case were the segments of a narrower type such as in the variety Duke of Bedford. But I lay most stress on the colouring, and the soft blending of its two main shades that is so delightful to look at or imitate in paint. The base of the trumpet pales a little at its base, and also picks up some reflected light from the perianth, so that its high lights are almost of the same tone as the main ground-colour of the segments, and the soft lemon-yellow of the trumpet runs out a little at the base of each segment, preventing any sudden break of colour, and I always marvel at the amount of pearly grey in its shadows, especially in the channelling at the sides of the broad central beam of each segment. This beam when present in a Daffodil adds greatly to my delight. It strengthens the lines of the drawing so well, and generally proclaims a firm substance and good lasting quality in the flower. I do not despise Duke of Bedford. It is a fine flower both in the border and cut, but for lingering over, painting, or dining in front of, I prefer the softer blending of lemon and cream of Weardale to the amber and milk of his grace, but both are lovely flowers, and fortunately they may be bought for shillings.

For a self-yellow trumpet, if there really is such a thing, or near enough to be called one if there is not, Hamlet has proved sturdy and generous with its soft, canary-coloured blossoms, and is one of the earlier flowerers; as a late one I can recommend The Doctor, a tall, clear yellow Aesculapius with a hearty, breezy look that must mean a cheery bedside manner. All of which good qualities, save the colour, are typical of the popular physician for whom, as Americans say, it was named, and who I believe is now growing Daffodils as well as he does Sweet Peas. This flower, The Doctor, is very welcome in the garden, in sickness or health, as he comes when other big trumpets have given us up (this season he was at his best about the 20th of April), and there is a charm about the long, narrow perianth segments and the fascinating backward curve they take when fully blown, which added to the King Alfred type of colouring urges one to send for this Doctor. Monarch I like and I give him a little square kingdom of border. Golden Bell is very effective for an irregular planting; my best group is among some species of Rosa, but I think its wide-mouthed bell too heavy for cutting. On the other hand, I can never quite forgive the long-nosed, drainpipe effect of Mme. Plemp’s trumpet, and even Dorothy Kingsmill’s lovely colouring is marred by the narrow mouth, and I feel as if the glove-stretchers should be applied gently at an early stage. On the other hand, in the Pyrenean wildling N. muticus the use of Nature’s scissors has balanced the flower, and I like the stiff, straight trumpet. One of my greatest treasures (I feel tempted to write ” so far ” as a recurring decimal to guard it from ill for aeons) is the white muticus. It has been found more than once in Pyrenean pastures, but so far as I know the only stock in cultivation came from a single bulb found by Mr. Charles Digby, the Rector of Warham. It increased slowly with him, but his generous spirit led him to give away a bulb or two when offsets appeared, but nowhere have they proved very vigorous, and many have died out. A promising youngster came to me from Warham, and a happy inspiration caused me to plant it on a northern slope of the rock garden. The cool conditions and good drainage have suited it so far; and I had seven of its lovely white blossoms this Spring, and learning of its total disappearance at Warham had the great pleasure of returning three bulbs to its kind discoverer. White Minor is another of the very elect of the earth: it was found in an old Irish garden, and has not gone far afield yet, but arrived here last autumn, a token of the kindly heart and good memory of Mr. Bennett Poe, who recalled my raptures over its refined beauty when I saw a bunch of it in his drawing-room at one of those delightful gatherings for a cup of tea after a long R.H.S. day, alas! too seldom possible for me, who throughout the Spring have ever a train to catch to be in my place at a night school that has grown to be part of my existence. Even among the choicest orchids and rare exotics from his collection of rare and lovely plants that always fill his vases, and make one feel the R.H.S. Hall ought to have a subterranean passage ending in a door into that room, to let Fellows see what cut flowers for decoration of a room should be like – even in such company, White Minor held its own as a gem. I was a prisoner in a sick-room when it flowered this year, but it came to my bedside and filled me with pride and gratitude and hope for next season. It is just the plant for a choice corner of the rock garden, a fitting companion for N, triandrus, cyclamineus, minimus, and their hybrid off- spring minicycla, an early flowering, long-lasting darling, with the charm of both parents. Minimus is not so prolific here as I wish: it once seeded along a path edge, and I hoped would go on doing so, but no further strays have appeared. N. juncifolius is rather a late flowerer, but very charming even though the rock garden is by then full of flower, and all the Hoop Petticoats in the world may come to me if they like and I will try to find room for them. I once collected bulbs of citrinus near Biarritz, and by getting my feet wet in their boggy home caught a bad cold, but learnt a valuable lesson as to the right position for this thirsty soul. This year I flowered and have seeded the true N. dubius, kindly sent me from its wild home by M. Denis of Iris fame. It is very small, but such a perfectly formed little flower, and so white that one longs to give a doll’s dinner-party to decorate the table with it. It loves heat and drought, so I am hoping it will thrive here, and some bulbs I keep in the Crocus frame have been lifted and replanted, and I found they had increased in size. I like any wild Narcissus in the rock garden, and some of the distinct hybrids, such as Dawn, Moonbeam, and other triandrus crosses, but the beds and shrubberies are the homes for most Daffodils. I have tried to group some of the cool- coloured ones in the centre of the piece of ground I have alluded to as my sole bit of colour scheming. This grouping contains Poets such as Rhymester, Almira, Cassandra and Lovelace, a few Leedsii varieties, White Lady and Ariadne among them, and nothing more yellow than Argent, Albatross, and Seagull, and coming between a mass of grey-leaved things and golden-leaved forms, with silver variegations among the daffodils, and the whole backed by purple foliage, the early Spring effect is delightfully clear and cool. White Lady is fine for this use, being far enough in the middle of the bed for the cup to pass unnoticed. I quarrel with her name on account of that cup, for no lady would go out with so clean and fresh a white skirt over such a bedraggled petticoat – worse than bedraggled, it is a lace-edged one, but with the lace frayed and torn and wanting mending. The distant effect may be a white lady, but close at hand the rags spell white slut. Argent I could never over-praise either for the border or as a cut flower, whatever rich and rare adjectives I might bestow upon it: the mingling of its silver and gold is charming. I have thoroughly enjoyed trying to paint it, and though failing to express the brilliancy of the reflected gold of the scattered sections of its cup on the glistening silvery perianth, yet my dull daub brings back some reminiscence of the real thing. I think it the very best of all double Daffodils, as it has gained in contrasting light and shade by its repeated sections of cups, and is not a bit heavy, owing to the length and scattered position of the perianth segments.

Plenipo I like, but not nearly so much, as the perianth is of too deep a yellow to make the contrast so pleasing.

I could fill many pages with prattle of my newer, choicer treasures, the ordinary garden furnishing of other folks’ beds most probably, so I will only say that they live in what we call the Pergola garden, where some paved paths divide it into rectangular beds, and one of our later additions, the New Wall, cuts off the east wind, so that there is found a sheltered home for good little daffs, and one can get at them easily to admire their beauty or fuss over their needs. Lemon Queen, White Queen, Solfatare, Lord Kitchener, Great Warley, Outpost, Incognita, and May Moon are some of this pampered company, and the end of one bed is filled with a double row of a fine giant Leedsii of Dutch origin, named H. C. Bowles after my father. At first we thought it rather shy flowering, and I was a little disappointed at its likeness to an enlarged White Queen, only with a less symmetrical base to the cup. But it has certainly improved since it became a British subject, and has shown a remarkable vigour of growth and freedom of flowering, and has a great deal of substance in it, so that as a cut bloom it lasts a long time, and the pale sulphur of its cup gradually tones down with age to a most delicate ivory white. White Queen is not to be despised, but she must play second fiddle when this anglicised Dutchman tunes up and plays his best.

Another naturalised Mynheer is Whitewell. I have always admired it since the day I first saw it among its sisters and its cousins and its aunts, more numerous than those of that First Lord who could be reckoned by dozens, Whitewell’s went into hundreds, and yet among them all this fine cream and soft buff-orange thing kept on catching my eye. I was in Holland, and for the first time in my life in that part of the country which is the real Holland for a flower-lover. I had the good fortune to be there with Mr. Joseph Jacob, and therefore under his wing, and for his sake found a kindly welcome in many a quiet, out- of-the-world nook where the making of new garden plants was going on. Pleasant as are my memories of those sunny or showery April days, none please me more than the mornings in Mr. Polman Moy’s holy of holies, where the pick of his last season or two’s seedlings are gathered together under mystic numbers. Mr. Jacob was choosing some of these to go to England to keep up the reputation of Whitewell Rectory for the good things that are always to be seen in Spring in the long, straight beds of his garden.

He was good enough to pretend he valued my advice in this selection, and extol as he might the charms of others, I always declared I preferred this X over a thing like a fish’s tail, No. 1234, and so many notches, or whatever other hieroglyphics then guarded the identity of the future Whitewell. I loved the set of its perianth, three ears forward and three back. Not show form, perhaps, but so good to look at, and the forwards casting such delicious shadows on the backwards in the sunlight.

My constancy and a close comparison with other attractive stocks gradually eliminated its rivals, and one morning when we met at breakfast I heard the news that an early visit to the bulb garden had ended in the arrangement that the stock of my favourite was to go to the Rectory in Wales. I am glad to say Whitewell made a successful debut on the show stand and was eagerly sought after, and its purchaser often tells me he is glad he was overruled by the fascination the flower had for me. My plants of it were a gift from him, and every Spring they recall pleasant memories of my first visit to Haarlem and its bulb gardens. Hall Caine I first saw during that same visit, and was much struck by its beauty. A large, loosely-built, sulphur-tinted Peerless (I mean to live up to my views and use this name), it seemed just the thing for cutting as well as for a good effect in a broad planting. The veteran grower who was showing us his stocks declared it to be “just incomparabilis,” and quoted what we thought a ridiculously low figure for it, and we made vows to invest largely in this “just incomparabilis,” but alas! at the office we learnt it was an unnamed seedling, and thought too much of to be acquired as easily as we were expecting. Now it has a name, and though it is a very charming thing its price is not prohibitive. It is soft and uncommon in colour, and with a fine tall stem and graceful poise, and is none too well known.

The celebrated white trumpet Peter Barr is among my choice and petted forms in the bed under the new wall. I wish he were a trifle taller in the stem and knew how to make more of his beauty. He came to me by means of exchange. I  did not give fifty guineas for him –  fifty shillings would be more than I should dream of giving for any one bulb – and I often wish Mr. Pope had never set the big price ball a-rolling by paying down £100 for those three bulbs of Will Scarlett.

I was one day asked what I thought the most beautiful novelty of the Daffodil shows of the year, and with happy unconsciousness replied without hesitation, ” Lavender, which I saw at Birmingham.” ” How nice of you,” came the reply; ” it is one of my raising, and as you like it you shall have a bulb,” and in his characteristically generous way my host led me to a newly-planted line and extracted the treasure just beginning to root, and each succeeding Spring I have revelled in the delicate colouring of that cup. The poor dear’s perianth is not a thing to boast of, buckling and curling unless treated in some cunning way unknown to a simple soul who, like me, is not up to the tricks of the showing profession, but the cup would save it even if the perianth were made of spiders’ legs. It is more like some enamelled jewel than a flower. The central hollow is of a soft emerald green of solid opaque enamel, then the flattish cup glistens all over and shows radiating lines of brightness and has an almost indescribable touch of pink in it. (In painting it I found a wash of Rose madder needful but difficult to subdue.) I think it suggests a transparent white enamel laid over engraved copper, or gold heavily alloyed with copper. Then the rim of the cup is stained with soft orange, of almost a salmon shade, and exquisite in combination with the green of the eye. This lovely beauty must never be stared at by the sun, but should be gathered directly the bud bursts and brought into the house to open, and I am rather glad to feel that some flowers are best gathered, and enjoy a vase of Lavender all the more for the knowledge that out-of-doors it would not look so happy.

Writing of gathering leads me to the final aspect of Daffodil-growing that I must dwell upon. I grudge picking blossoms so much from even well-flowered groups, that we have planted some lines of useful cutting varieties in the spaces between the currant and gooseberry bushes, not needing that space for the crop nurses told us in our early days emanated from that special bit of ground. The daffodils get a bit of protection there and grow stiff and tall, and are out of the way before fruit-picking begins. What have we put there? Let me see now Sir Watkin of course, a fine healthy lot of bulbs of giant proportions from a certain Dutch field of many acres I once crossed with Sir Watkin up to my knees. I never saw such a sight, and vowed I must test their vigour here. In this their first year they have surprised all who had not seen them at Noordwyk; and now comes the question, Will they be able to do so again? Queen Bess is another indispensable as she is so early. Hall Caine, whose praises I have already sung, Mrs. Camm, as she is one of the most useful, a delightful size for old and tall champagne glasses, delicate in colour and lasting well. Mr. Camm is there, too, but not so much approved of. Seagull, Albatross, several Poets, and a long line of mixed Dutch seedlings are those that come to my mind as most successful. Some beds of Tea Roses are planted pretty thickly with Barrii conspicuus, the Camms, and Golden Mary, and provide many a good bunch, while I hope and believe the Daffodil leaves protect the Rose shoots. It is good to see that Barrii conspicuus is still in favour even with experts, for in the voting list returns as shown in the R.H.S. Daffodil Year Book, it heads the list of cut flowers from the open, those suitable for planting in grass, and also of the yellow-perianthed Barrii, and is well up in lists for other purposes. William Backhouse must have been a happy and proud man when he first saw it in his seed-bed. I have a great affection for its white perianthed sport Branston, and am amused rather than annoyed when some of the flowers come half and half, and look like cream poured on custard.

Edward Augustus Bowles