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The Daffodil Growers

The Daffodil Growers

The Backhouse family - famous in the 19th and early 20th century for banking, botany and horticulture - included several pioneers in daffodil breeding. Volunteer Jenny Asquith focuses on the work of Robert Ormston Backhouse (born 1854, died 1940) and his wife Sarah. 1

Many might be surprised to learn that it was only as recently as the mid-19th century that daffodils began to be bred for garden use in Britain.

With a growing global empire, exploration and industrial expansion bringing more wealth and leisure to many in Britain, the number of amateur and commercial botanists was increasing, as was the variety of horticultural books and journals.

The daffodil ‘Mrs R.O. Backhouse' achieved instant fame in the gardening world for being the first with a pink cup and white perianth. Still on sale today, the daffodil was the culmination of more than 20 years' experimentation by a pioneering married couple, Robert and Sarah Backhouse.

Together at Sutton Court in Herefordshire, the Backhouses pursued a variety of interests, although ‘apart from hunting, archery, photography and breeding cats, plant breeding was their whole life' (Davis, 1990, p.63).

Robert named the daffodil in 1923 in honour of his late wife, Sarah Elizabeth, née Dodgson (1857-1921), who was renowned for her daffodil varieties. The Backhouses also had great success in hybridising lilies: Lilium marhan ‘Mrs R.O. Backhouse' is still available.


Narcissus 'Mrs R.O. Backhouse'

Robert Ormston Backhouse (1854-1940) himself came from an extensive family of naturalists in northern England - his father and grandfather (both William Backhouse, 1779-1844 and 1807-1869) were well known in botanical circles.

Robert's father had hybridised daffodils and two of his brothers, Charles and Henry, also raised daffodils. His son, William Ormston Backhouse (1885-1962), continued the family interest both in Argentina and in retirement at Sutton Court. His daffodil, ‘W.P. Milner' is also still on sale today.

Robert's father died in 1869. His daffodil collection, along with that of Edward Leeds, was acquired by Peter Barr, a London nurseryman, who developed, with others, a new classification system for narcissus, which Barr used in Ye Narcissus or Daffodyl Flowere, containing his history and culture, etc. This list of all known varieties was published to coincide with the RHS special conference on daffodils, held on April 1st 1884.

Sarah Backhouse won prizes for her daffodils. She gained an award from the Royal Horticultural Society in 1901 for ‘Moonbeam', an RHS Bronze Medal in 1905 and the Barr Cup in 1916. She was particularly known for producing new varieties of red-cupped daffodils.

In an ‘In Memoriam' in The Garden magazine of 19 February 1921, it was said of Mrs Backhouse: ‘Few of the famous raisers of new varieties were less known on committees or at meetings, and it was not very often that she staged many flowers in public, but when she did, it was something like a revelation to see what was there' (Jacob).

On the same page, another obituary writer, Engleheart wrote: ‘To all English flower-lovers of the best and most essentially English flower of Spring, the death of Mrs R.O. Backhouse will have brought a sense of irreplaceable loss'.


Dalton, J., ‘From banks to bulbs', The Garden, March 1997, p.156-9.
Davis, P., ‘The Backhouses of Weardale, Co. Durham', Garden History, 18.1 (1990) 57-67.
Davis, P., ‘Backhouse Family, naturalists and horticulturalists', Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, [accessed 14 March 2008]
Engleheart, ‘Mrs R.O. Backhouse - in Memoriam', The Garden, vol LXXXV, 19 February 1921, p. 96.
Jacob, J., ‘Mrs R.O. Backhouse - in Memoriam', The Garden, vol LXXXV, 19 February 1921, p96.

Further reading

Coleman, C.F., Hardy Bulbs Vol. 2: Daffodils, Tulips and Hyacinths (Penguin Books in collaboration with the Royal Horticultural Society, 1964).

Desmond, R., with the assistance of Ellwood, C., Dictionary of British and Irish botanists and horticulturalists (London:Taylor & Francis/The Natural History Museum, 1994).

Hadfield, M., Harling, R., Highton, L., British Gardeners - a biographical dictionary (London: A. Zwemmer Ltd./Condé Nast Publications Ltd., 1980).
Jefferson-Brown, The Daffodil - its History, Varieties and Cultivation (Faber and Faber, 1951).