"Pay attention to the world." -- Susan Sontag
Twelve Dozen Daffodils (3 of 8)

Twelve Dozen Daffodils (3 of 8)

From “Early Daffodil History” in Daffodil: The Remarkable Story of the World’s Most Popular Spring Flower by Noel Kingsbury:

“‘It is desirable to call the attention of the humblest cultivators, of every labourer indeed, or operative, who has a spot of garden, or a ledge at his window, to the infinite variety of Narcissi that may be thus raised, and most easily in pots at his window, if not exposed too much to sun and wind, offering him a source of harmless and interesting amusement, and perhaps a little profit and celebrity.’

“These were the words of William Herbert (1778–1847), writing in 1843. An Oxford-educated member of the gentry, he entered Parliament, and then the Church, finally becoming The Very Reverend Dean of Manchester in the Church of England. One of that famous eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English type, ‘the hunting parson,’ he was reportedly fond of outdoor life and sport, as well as being a poet and a keen amateur naturalist — as were so many of his clerical colleagues. He did some experimental breeding, mostly with florist’s flowers….

“Very often the hybrids turned out to be sterile, which confirmed the sneaking suspicion of many that God had created nature, and it was not the job of Man to meddle and try to improve on His creation. Herbert, however, discovered that some of his hybrids were fertile, which led him to challenge the concept of the species as being fixed and immutable. This led him to wonder whether the species was actually rather an arbitrary and artificial distinction.

“These were radical thoughts for anyone in early nineteenth-century Europe, especially for a member of the established church. Herbert decided to carry out an experiment, and it was daffodils which he chose as his subject. He was interested in the family into which the daffodil had been classified, the
Amaryllidaceae, and in writing the first study of the family he dissected the flowers of all 150 daffodil varieties then known in Britain, in order to develop a classification system….

“William Herbert was not only one of the fathers of modern plant breeding, but his example was useful in the battle to get hybridisation accepted in Victorian Britain. Much like genetic modification is seen by some today as ‘unnatural’ and therefore dangerous or even immoral, there was a certain level of opposition to hybridisation during this period. The fact that William Herbert, a Dean of the Church of England, had not only carried it out, but recommended it to others, was made great use of by progressives within the horticultural community.”

From “Daffodils: A Potted History” in Daffodil: The Biography of a Flower by Helen O’Neill:

“It is impossible to understand what daffodil lovers call the ‘modern’ daffodil without meeting some of the nineteenth-century characters who created it and who, in so doing, re-engineered spring. William Herbert (1778–1847) is the first and most intellectually intriguing; a politician, linguist, poet, clergyman and cerebral firebrand who came to be known by a nickname he adopted for himself, which to the modern ear has a mafia-esque ring to it — ‘the Dean’….

“By 1840 Herbert had taken up the prestigious post of Dean of Manchester (from whence came his nickname) and undertaken decades of systematic experiments on plants. He collated data, published research, battled with creationists and impressed his elite peers, a group that included a brilliant youngster called Charles Darwin. In the process Herbert became Britain’s first known amateur plant hybridiser and of all the species he worked with none was closer to his heart than the daffodil….

“Farmers had long understood that plants and animals could be deliberately crossed to produce useful traits, but the mechanics behind this remained mysterious at best and the notion of it, to many people, profoundly frightening. The issue of how to classify living things properly was another area of bewilderment, as was whether — as most believed — creatures produced by mating different kinds of animals or plants… were always infertile.

“Herbert experimented with many plants but was particularly intrigued by
Narcissus…. He wondered whether wild French daffodils were natural hybrids, and with N. pseudonarcissus relatively easy to find in the English countryside he sourced a handful of other ancient varieties, such as N. poeticus and N. incomparabilis, and started forcing them to breed with each other.

“Herbert discovered that creating new daffodils was boundlessly exciting. He became entranced by the unexpected new forms and vivid colours his crosses produced and urged others to try it….

“The Dean’s passion for hybridisation went far beyond any single plant. He wanted to understand the complex connective web that he believed linked creatures of the past to those of the present; the mechanisms by which organisms changed through generations and over time. In 1837 he published Amaryllidaceae: Preceded by an Attempt to Arrange the Monocotyledonous Orders, a dense work (as much of his is) packed with findings, conclusions, speculations and the unexpected evidence that, on top of everything else, he possessed unusually accomplished drawing skills. His images are quite lovely.”


This is the third of eight posts featuring daffodils from Oakland Cemetery’s gardens. The first post is Twelve Dozen Daffodils (1 of 8) and the second post is Twelve Dozen Daffodils (2 of 8).

Since I mentioned the importance of European experimental plant breeding in the previous post, I’ve included a couple of excerpts from each of my daffodil books about one of the British Victorian plant breeders or hybridizers — William Herbert, who combined his eclectic interests with experimentation in plant genetics and produced new plant variants at a time when even contemplating such a thing was somewhat heretical.

I found some of Herbert’s botanical drawings in a collection (from Plantillustrations.org) at this link — which include not only daffodils but other amaryllis drawings that remind me very much of some of the amaryllis photographs I’ve posted here previously (and will likely do so again this summer).

Thanks for reading and taking a look!


Leave a reply ...