- Credit: ©National Trust Images/Carole Dr
That harbinger of spring, the daffodil, links Cornwall’s past and present - where eighty per cent of the world's daffodils are now grown.
In late winter and early spring, the West Cornish landscape is a yellow and green patchwork of daffodil fields. Pickers work long hours, harvesting the crop, which is sold all over Britain and Europe.
“Cornwall may not be the ancestral home of daffodils, but it is one of the best places in the world to grow them,” says Andrew Tompsett in his book Golden Harvest: The Story of Daffodil Growing in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly. “No single geographical location is so suited to the whole narcissus tribe.”
Narcissus (daffodils and narcissi) like the light that pours over the narrow peninsula of West Cornwall and the well-drained soil. Native to the Iberian peninsula and North Africa, some believe the bulbs were brought here by the Romans, while others think they came with monks travelling to the monastic communities on St Michael’s Mount and Tresco.
Eyeing the narcissi growing wild around his farm on St Mary’s in the 1870s, potato farmer William Trevellick wondered if he could make a profit from them. He packed 30 bunches into a hatbox and packed them off to London, where daffodils wouldn’t be in flower for weeks. He made seven shillings and sixpence. The next box earned more, so he and his neighbours began cultivating the flowers and an industry was born.
By 1905, 700 tons (635 tonnes) of narcissi were being sent to the mainland from the Isles of Scilly. Wanting in on the flowery gold rush, farmers in West Cornwall began to grow daffodils near Penzance. Although they weren’t able to rival the Scilly Isles for early production, the county soon became a huge flower producer. In the late 1950s, over 10,000 workers were employed in the spring daffodil fields of the Tamar Valley.
Today Britain produces 90 per cent of the world’s cut daffodils, 80 per cent of which are grown in Cornwall. The landscape and timing of the production has altered considerably over the past twenty years, with production now centred in the western end of Cornwall. Cultivars that were bred at the Rosewarne Experimental Horticulture Station at Camborne have allowed mainland growers to produce early blooms.
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'The large range of cultivars, many very early flowering, which were sold to Cornish growers after the closure of Rosewarne in 1989, now comprise the range used by daffodil growers in Cornwall today,' says Andrew Tompsett. 'The trade is now based chiefly on flower sales from January to early April and continuity of production is essential to meet the market demand and to retain the picking gangs who are almost entirely from Eastern Europe. In the past, flowers and dry bulb sales were both important. Today it is the flowers which are of greatest importance financially.'
The majority of blooms are the yellow trumpet types seen for sale in supermarkets. But these are not the sort of daffodils that most gardeners covet. The little 'Tête-à-tête' narcissus (which was bred in Cornwall) is very popular at garden centres, although ironically it’s now mostly produced by Dutch growers. Thankfully one of the world’s top bulb producers is found in Cornwall: Scamp’s Daffodils works 14 acres of land near Falmouth, growing over 2,000 varieties. Ron Scamp - who used to pick daffodils on his uncle’s farm in the Tamar Valley as a boy - began selling bulbs thirty years ago. Although he still works on the farm, it is now his son Adrian, who heads the business.
“I’m 77 and my son does most of the work now,” says Ron, “but I’ll never retire. I don’t work full days any more, except in spring when I’m usually in the fields all day long. That’s the best time of year, when the daffodils are in flower all around me.”
The Scamp collection includes 300 bred by Ron and heritage daffodils (such as the charming ‘Bath’s Flame’, ‘Sulphur Phoenix’ and ‘White Lady’), as well as species narcissus and richly perfumed jonquil forms.
The daffodil links Cornwall’s past and present: a living reminder of times gone by and a thriving modern industry. Whether we’re buying bulbs from Scamp’s to grow in our gardens or enjoying the sight of the gold patchwork of fields, late winter and early spring in Cornwall is all about the county’s unique floral heritage.
Heritage daffodils at Cotehele
From February to May, the National Trust gardens at Cotehele bloom with the nodding heads of daffodils. Around 250 varieties bloom in the old orchard and the meadow, in thick drifts of yellow, cream and white, their delicate scent on the air.
Most are heritage varieties, dating as far back as 1620; many of the 19th-century hybrids are the surviving treasures of the cut flower industry of the surrounding Tamar Valley. In the past, the Tamar fields were worked by generations of families; the cut crop was sent to the flower markets of Plymouth by boat and London by rail. When the fields were given over to growing food during the war, the daffodil bulbs were discarded into the hedgerows and surrounding countryside, where many continued to bloom.
Cotehele has rescued many of these rare local daffs and they now grow in the estate alongside other historic varieties. These old timers are not the same as the sturdy modern hybrids grown on roundabouts - they are often scented, with beautiful flower shapes and graceful slender stems. If you visit Cotehele this spring, look out for ‘Firebrand’ (1897), ‘Seagull’ (1893) and ‘Barrii Conspicuus’ (1867). All three are capable of converting even the most ardent daffodil hater.