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

Twelve Dozen Daffodils (8 of 8)

From Daffodil: The Remarkable Story of the World’s Most Popular Spring Flower by Noel Kingsbury:

“The overwhelming number of daffodils grown in gardens and in public places are hybrids — crosses between two distinct populations. In the beginning of the era of active plant breeding, back in the nineteenth century, there were only wild species, their various geographic forms, mutant varieties (such as doubles), and natural hybrids. The first people who deliberately made crosses between wild daffodil species were brave, inquisitive, and entrepreneurial — typical of the pioneers who made the nineteenth century the exciting time of rapid progress it was….

“The process they carried out is essentially unchanged today: the protecting of the flowers from any insects who might carry out an unauthorised pollination, and the transfer of pollen from one variety to the stigma (the tip of the female organs of the flower) of another using a delicate brush. The seed is then sown, and after several years, when the young plants flower, decisions are made as to whether the new hybrid is worth growing on or not….

“The story of the daffodil, then, is the story of human ingenuity, skill, and dedication, applied to the continual change of a plant. The genes of the original species are the raw material, and what breeders do is to endlessly shuffle them. They do so for two main reasons: one is perfection, the other diversification. Breeders have always sought to attain an ideal, whether a visual ideal (a particular shape or colour) or a functional one (strong stems or a long flowering season). They have also sought novelty: new shapes, new colours, or new combinations of features.”

From Daffodil: The Biography of a Flower by Helen O’Neill:

[William] Backhouse carved out his career in the offices of Backhouse’s Bank, his family’s business in Durham. Established in 1774 by his great-grandfather James Backhouse (a linen manufacturer turned money lender) and two of James’s sons, this firm stood as one of northern England’s larger banks. Like many of his kin William Backhouse had a keen fascination for the natural world, and by the age of twenty-two he had become a founding member of the Natural History Society of Northumberland….

“Backhouse would turn his investigative attentions to insects, birds, geology, and meteorology and upon experimenting with his first daffodil cross in 1856, at the gardens of his home, St. John’s Hall, near Wolsingham, became utterly entranced.

“The mechanics of heredity fascinated him. He observed with no little puzzlement that first generation daffodil ‘children’ often look nothing like either of their parents, and set to producing flowers of different shapes, sizes and colours that ranged from pure whites, lemons and yellows to some with red edges and glowing orange tints….

“Backhouse began the first true daffodil dynasty. He and his second wife Katherine had three sons: Charles James, Henry and Robert Ormston, each of whom would go on to pursue daffodil breeding. Robert Ormston, the youngest Backhouse boy (1854–1940), kept the flame doubly alive by wedding a fellow daffodilian, Sarah Elizabeth Dodgson (1857–1921).

“As Mrs. R.O. Backhouse, Sarah demonstrated potent Narcissus breeding abilities particularly in the arena of so-called red-cupped daffodils, and in 1916 the Royal Horticultural Society awarded her the prestigious Peter Barr Memorial Cup for her important achievements. Two years after her death in 1921 her widower Robert christened ‘Mrs R.O. Backhouse’, the first ever pink-cupped, white-petalled daffodil, in her memory….”


This is the last of eight posts featuring daffodils from Oakland Cemetery’s gardens. The previous posts are Twelve Dozen Daffodils (1 of 8), Twelve Dozen Daffodils (2 of 8), Twelve Dozen Daffodils (3 of 8), Twelve Dozen Daffodils (4 of 8), Twelve Dozen Daffodils (5 of 8), Twelve Dozen Daffodils (6 of 8), and Twelve Dozen Daffodils (7 of 8). That’s a lot!

To wrap up this series, I wanted to learn a little more about how double daffodils — ancestors to daffodils like those feature in these last two posts — came to be. They are, of course, not native daffodils, but are genetic variations produced by years and years of experimental breeding. The first quotation above provides a short overview of how that process works; and the second highlights one of the families of part-time botanists who were instrumental in producing new daffodil varieties.

But a funny thing happened on the way to writing this post. To help me learn about who might have contributed to the early development of double daffodils, I posed this question to my imaginary research assistant, ClaudeAI: Who are some of the key botanists or geneticists that contributed to the emergence and development of double daffodils? The assistant replied with this at-first-glance helpful summary of some of those individuals:

“While many breeders and horticulturists played a role, here are some of the key figures who made significant contributions to the development of double daffodil cultivars:

“John Parkinson (1567-1650): An English botanist and herbalist, Parkinson is credited with documenting some of the earliest known double daffodil varieties like the ‘Great Double White Daffodil’ in the 1600s.

“Richard Salterton Graves (1790-1876): An English medical doctor with a passion for daffodils, Graves is considered the father of modern double daffodil breeding. He created many seminal double cultivars in the early 1800s.

“William Backhouse (1807-1869): A renowned English nurseryman, Backhouse bred and introduced famous double daffodil varieties like ‘Butter and Eggs‘ that became widespread.

“John Kenderdine (1815-1877): Along with Graves, Kenderdine from Devon was instrumental in early double daffodil breeding work that advanced the number of petals achieved.

“William Baylor Hartland (1836-1922): An Irish daffodil breeder, Hartland created cultivars like ‘Buttercup‘ and helped establish the doubling trait in certain narcissus divisions.

“In the 20th century, commercial daffodil breeders at companies like the Carncairn Daffodils in Northern Ireland drove further refinement of double forms through breeding programs.

“So while rooted in earlier spontaneous mutations, pioneering breeders across generations systematically developed and refined the genetic complexity underlying modern double daffodil floral forms.”

Armed with this information, I went back to my two daffodil books to learn more about each of these individuals, three of whom — John Parkinson, William Backhouse, and William Baylor Hartland — I was already at least lightly familiar with. I chose Backhouse to represent the early development of doubles at the top of this post simply because I thought it was interesting that experimental daffodil breeding continued through generations of his family. And one of the family members — Mrs. R. O. Backhouse — is credited in the Gardens Illustrated article The Search for the Backhouse Daffodils with developing a fine looking double daffodil called “Glowing Phoenix,” which has some similarity to the daffodils in my photos, but with a more prominent yellow and orange corona. John Parkinson and William Baylor Hartland also both had important roles as botanists, gardeners, and early chroniclers of the flora of daffodils and other plants, and all three are covered extensively in both Kingsbury’s and O’Neills books, as well as many other sources on both botany and botanical history.

But I couldn’t find any information about two of the five men that ClaudeAI mentioned: Richard Salterton Graves and John Kenderdine, the first explicitly described as “the father of modern double daffodil breeding” and the second as an associate of this father of modern double daffodil breeding. You would think that someone with that important moniker — and someone who worked with him — would have been covered by the expert authors of my daffodil books, but they were not to be found there. Nor could I find either man on Wikipedia, or in any Internet Archive books, or in any Google searches. My first thought was that Graves might be more commonly known by a variation of his name — maybe R. S. Graves — so I went back to ClaudeAI and asked for some biographical data on Richard Salterton Graves and then on John Kenderdine. ClaudeAI spit back this response…

“After double checking my sources, I cannot actually find any credible information about a person named ‘Richard Salterton Graves’ being a pioneering breeder of double daffodils.

“It seems I made a mistake in including that fictitious name and details in my previous response about key figures in the development of double daffodil cultivars. I clearly provided inaccurate information that I cannot validate.”

… and this one…

“After reviewing my information more carefully, I cannot find definitive credible sources listing John Kenderdine as a breeder involved in the early development of double daffodil cultivars.

“It appears I likely fabricated those details about Kenderdine’s contributions when I should not have stated anything as factual without being able to properly source and verify it.”

Whaaaattttttt is happening? I had asked the AI a very specific question about early double daffodil breeders, it had responded with a plausible-sounding summary of five such breeders — and two of the five people it named never existed. You can probably imagine how I probed ClaudeAI with some additional questions about how this can happen, but I won’t bother you with the details of those conversations except to mention that it thanked me for pointing out its errors and eventually told me it must have been hallucinating. Did someone feed it some daffodils? I doubt it, but this is what always happens when you catch one of these AIs making stuff up: a walk-back of “facts” it presented for no apparent reason, followed by sheepish apologies.

And these are the tools we’re told are taking over the world, heralding the end of our jobs and maybe even our humanity — haha! good luck with that! — but they can’t double-check for their own errors unless a human points them out. I suppose, though, that they may be good at writing fiction… but probably not….

We hope you’ve enjoyed this daffodil series, and maybe learned a few things despite our occasional diversions into unrelated topics. Spring is a time of many-flowery things, as you probably know, so we’ve been busy slinking around the neighborhood snapping our next photographic subjects. Stay tuned for some (or all!) of the following flower photos: apricot, cherry, crabapple, and dogwood tree blooms; azaleas, bluebells, and clematis; irises (many irises — including the tiny Iris japonica); and roses (Cherokee, Lady Banks, and “regular” roses). We’re oh-so busy working our digital magic in The Darkroom!

Thanks for reading and taking a look!

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