Daffodil Days

Photo by Bob Leitch

Photo by Bob Leitch

If you have been to Winterthur within the last two weeks, you have seen the remarkable display of naturalized daffodils emerging along the front drive and throughout the garden. The daffodil’s triumphant bloom is a clear signal of spring on the estate. What many do not know is the wide variety of cultivars in the garden and the history behind these spring delights.

The colorful daffodils in the Winterthur Garden date back to the late 1800s and early 1900s. In 1902, Henry Francis du Pont laid out his first narcissi garden.

“The great pleasure in a bulb garden is in its permanency…[1902]…I laid out and planted my fist narcissi garden on a gentle slope in front of our house where the lawn faded into the woods.” – H. F. du Pont “Naturalized Narcissi at Winterthur” Daffodil Year Book, Royal Horticulture Society, 1915

Photo by Bob Leitch

Photo by Bob Leitch

Daffodils were one of the few plants du Pont would write about and one of the many in which he maintained a lifelong interest. Against the general advice in catalogues to scatter the bulbs over the ground, planting where they fall, du Pont decided to keep the various groups separate in masses. He would first outline these plantations with twigs and branches to create the separate masses of each cultivar. It was also important to him that earlier bulbs should be planted in an entirely separate location from the others as to not ruin the main effect by early fading blooms. Du Pont’s vision was for the entire garden to be a succession of blooms, especially in the spring.

For example, Narcissus poeticus tend to flower later, usually in mid to late April at Winterthur. This flower with extremely white petals and a small, crinkled disc for a cup, per du Pont’s rule, should be kept to a separate locality as its white petals look almost blue in contrast to the other cream white varieties. Although du Pont planted the poeticus as early as 1911 along the stream in the March Bank, he used very few varieties and cultivars of the poeticus in other areas, as opposed to the nearly 300 different types of daffodils he experimented with elsewhere in the garden.

Daffodils along Clenny Run. Photo by Gottlieb Hampfler

Daffodils along Clenny Run. Photo by Gottlieb Hampfler

Daffodils are all in the genus Narcissus, which comes from the Greek word narkoum, meaning to make numb. The bulbs, in fact, contain a narcotic and poisonous alkaloid that can cause death when ingested. Daffodils in the late 1800s were broken down into groups based on the length of their cup or trumpet. In 1910 the terms had changed, but the groups were still based on cup length and also coloring. Terms would change again in the 1950s. The American Daffodil Society recognizes 13 daffodil divisions on the basis of anatomy. The most popular divisions are Trumpet, Large-Cupped, and Small-Cupped. The types most referred to by du Pont are the trumpet, incomparabilis, leedsii, and barrii, from the classification system used in the early 1900s. It was important to du Pont to keep these types planted separately; he noted that showing the varieties together in a mixture was the “perfect nightmare.”

Du Pont made the following rules for planting narcissi: first, only position together varieties that bloom at about the same time— never more than one week’s difference; second, group contrasting forms and shape; and finally, arrange your plantations in eye-pleasing shapes and sizes.

As well as planting daffodils throughout the garden, du Pont found other uses. The former ten-hole golf course on the estate—now a part of the private club Bidermann—had fairways planted with naturalized daffodils. During the spring season, if a ball landed in the daffodils, the golfer was not permitted to retrieve it.

Daffodils can be found planted all over Winterthur, from the garden to meadows and hillsides to valleys and woodlands and beside the stream of Clenny Run. Alongside Clenny Run, du Pont planted only the cream-white, small-cupped daffodil ‘Queen of the North’ to create the impressive plantation seen there.

Photo by Bob Leitch

Photo by Bob Leitch

The succession of blooms, including the daffodils, is a beautiful sight at Winterthur during the spring. The daffodils along with magnolias and early azaleas are currently blooming in the garden. To discover what’s in bloom, today or any day, please call the Winterthur Garden Report at 302.888.4856 or visit the Garden Blog http://www.winterthur.org/?p=509.

To learn more about heirloom bulbs, come hear Old House Gardens’ Scott Kunst’s lively lecture “Heirloom Bulbs: Unique, Endangered, Amazing,” on April 26. For more information, please visit http://www.winterthur.org/?p=862.

Post by Hilary Seitz, Marketing & Communications Department. Contributed by Linda Eirhart, assistant director of horticulture and curator of plants.

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