As the days start to get noticeably longer, what could be more emblematic of spring than a host of cheery daffodils? Chairman of the Northern Group of the Daffodil Society, and member of the North of England Horticultural Society, Rae Beckwith is a daffodil aficionado, so we sat down with him to discover more about this simple but joyful flower.
‘When people think of Easter they think of daffodils,’ says Rae. ‘The spring shows are a really exciting time, when gardeners have waited through the long winter. One of the first of the shows is the Harrogate Flower Show where we have the most wonderful platform, with an excess of 110 classes which brings in about 1,000 daffodils in total.’
The Northern Group of the Daffodil Society also have their own stand there to encourage others to appreciate and enjoy daffodils the way their members do. Certainly Rae has been bitten by the daffodil bug; he left his job as manager of the Horticultural Department at Gateshead Council to volunteer full-time for shows such as the Harrogate Flower Show. ‘People thought I was crazy at the time, but I’ve had a brilliant life since then,’ he laughs.
Currently there are a whopping 35,000 cultivated varieties of daffodil registered to the RHS, in a range of colours from white, red, yellow, orange and pink, and including new miniature varieties, which according to Rae are perfect for growing in pots in cold conservatories or greenhouses. Out of those 35,000 there are about 100 varieties that are in common commercial use, such as the ones you see bobbing by the side of the road or grow in your garden.
But when it comes to growing prize-winning daffodils, things get a little more complex. The Daffodil Show that takes place at Harrogate every year has five judges and 12 stewards to assist them in determining the best flower. The judging is broken down into categories initially, with different sections for newcomers all the way through to experts, but then the best daffodils out of those classes are brought forward for one final judging – the winner of which is crowned the best flower in the whole show.
In the past, the judging process was kept firmly under wraps, but times have changed now. ‘In my time as chairman, I’ve realised that the public like to see these things,’ says Rae. ‘So now we do the judging in an area semi-open to the public so they can see the process, and they seem to take great pleasure in that.’
So what exactly constitutes a prize-winning daffodil? ‘The stem has got to be straight with absolutely no twists,’ explains Rae. ‘The foliage must not be diseased or have any sort of imperfection; the petals, depending on the species, should be flat or swept back and (unless it’s a variety with a bending head) the flower cup needs to be at a right angle to the petals so that it’s looking at you.’
‘The judges need to have a deep understanding of the different varieties of daffodils so that they know what to look for in each one. They allocate points for each criterion and then the one that’s nearest perfection at the end of the judging process is the winner.’
If you’re looking to bring some spring cheer into your garden, Rae suggests visiting somewhere like the Harrogate Flower Show to get an idea of which cultivars are best for you, with specialists on hand to offer expert advice. Once you know which variety is for you, these specialists can then point you in the direction of growers to help you buy the best bulbs possible.
When you’ve got them planted, be sure not to commit the cardinal daffodil sin. ‘People get tired of seeing the foliage after the daffodils have flowered and they decide to cut the foliage back – well that’s like cutting your head off,’ says Rae. ‘All the nutrients for next year’s bulb are in the foliage that you’ve just chopped off.’
Another thing tidy gardeners are guilty of is bending the foliage back and securing it with an elastic band to make them look neat – this is just as bad, as you’re essentially strangling your flowers and hindering their progress for next year.
To avoid the need to cut back (what you may deem as) unsightly foliage, grow them amongst other plants. ‘The daffodils will generally come up early and then as they start to die, other plants will grow up and supersede them in height so the foliage isn’t as noticeable. If they’re allowed to die back naturally, next year you’ll have another and probably bigger crop of bulbs,’ advises Rae.
‘The flowers will come back every year, but I recommend that every three years you dig the whole lot up, divide them and give them a wash with the hosepipe. If you had one big clump of bulbs then perhaps find four new locations and plant a group in each to start the process again – it’s up to you to propagate your numbers and build up your stock.’
And if you receive potted daffodils as a gift, don’t simply throw them away once they’re past their best. Tap them out of the pot once they’ve finished flowering and plant them in the garden – next year they’ll grow again.
• You can register new varieties of daffodils and name them yourself. Rae has registered 30 in his time, the most popular of which is the Angel of the North – its two shades of rusty orange match the North East landmark perfectly.
• In Jersey they’ve long since held competitions for daffodils with the longest stem, sometimes forcing them up past four feet.
• As daffodils pop up year after year, lots of people plant them as a sign of resilience and hope. Marie Curie first started using them in their campaigns in 1986, where they handed out fresh daffodils while collecting donations.
• In Chinese culture, the flower signifies prosperity, good fortune and good luck.
• In Victorian times, daffodils were regarded as the perfect flower for a gentleman to gift a lady as they symbolised chivalry – now they’re the official flower for 10-year wedding anniversaries.