The ‘Colleen Bawn’ and the ‘Empress of Ireland’: a rich tradition of daffodil breeding

There is a growing appreciation among gardeners for this rich horticultural legacy

As gardeners, we may occasionally grumble about Ireland’s cool, damp climate but oh, how our daffodils adore it: everywhere I looked this week, I seemed to spot their jaunty flowers spangling the country’s gardens, grassy banks and roadsides in bright droplets of cream, gold and orange.

Ireland is, of course, well known within the world of international horticulture for its tradition of daffodil breeding.

A brief scan of the fascinating catalogue of the famous Dutch bulb garden Hortus Bulborum, in Limmen, home to more than 1,000 different kinds of daffodils (or Narcissus as the genus is properly known), reads like a roll-call of the great Irish growers and breeders who introduced so many of them into cultivation. Guy Wilson, Brian Duncan, Frank Harrison, Willy Dunlop, Lionel and Helen Richardson, Tom Bloomer, Kate Reade and Alice Lawrenson are just some of the names that jump out from its pages, alongside cultivar names like 'Irish Splendour', 'Eire Gem' and 'Ulster Star'.

Back home in Ireland, there’s a growing appreciation among gardeners for this rich horticultural legacy, coupled with a keen desire to preserve the rarer and often more elegant historic varieties. An example is Dublin gardener Mary O’Brien, whose small city garden is filled to bursting point with these lovely spring flowers.


O’Brien is what you might call a recovering galanthophile, her decades-long, all-consuming passion for the dainty snowdrop superseded in recent years by a great tendre for historic or heritage varieties of Irish daffodils.

Like any great plant passion, hers began quite innocuously, when a gardening friend (Hester Forde, owner of Cosheen Garden in Co Cork), gave her a present of the very early-flowering Narcissus 'Cedric Morris', an English daffodil famed for its dainty beauty.

It was love at first sight. From there, O’Brien quickly moved on to collecting Irish daffodils. “I wanted them all, but in particular the historic kinds, whose individual stories I find fascinating.”

One of her favourites is the strangely named 'Lucifer', introduced by Howth gardener Alice Lawrenson in the late 1800s. Flowering in February/March to a height of 35-45cm , it has pale twisted petals surrounding a central bright-orange/yellow cup or "corona".

Another is ‘Empress of Ireland’, introduced by the brilliant Northern Irish daffodil breeder, Guy Wilson, in 1950. Like many of Wilson’s other introductions, this award-winning Irish trumpet daffodil – his personal favourite of all the daffodils that he bred – is notable for the pale, elegant beauty of its flowers.

Other favourites of O'Brien's include Narcissus 'Colleen Bawn' (also known as 'The Fair Maid of Erin'), a Victorian variety that Alan Street , head nurseryman at Avon Bulbs, has described as having a flower that's the colour of "a mushroom in moonlight"; the palely beautiful, scented N. 'White Lady', also introduced in the late 1800s and once very popular as a cut flower; N. 'Wendy Walsh, named after the Irish botanical artist whose former home in Burtown is known for its wonderful collection of old Irish daffodils; N. 'Mite', a miniature cyclamineus-type bred in Lissadell; the N. 'Memorina Group' introduced by famous breeder Brian Duncan; N. 'Glasnevin', an early to mid-season variety with white flowers bred by Kate Reade; and N. 'Dr Lamb's Fairy Gold', a miniature-type narcissus bred by the late Dr Keith Lamb.

Surprisingly, O'Brien is a little sniffy about N. 'Rip van Winkle' the dainty, double-flowered daffodil introduced by the Cork-based breeder William Baylor Hartland in the late 19th century, but I confess to loving its cheerful, starry flowers.

Most of these heritage varieties of Irish daffodils aren’t available to buy in garden centres; instead, you’ll need to seek them out in early autumn – also the time to plant them – in the catalogues of specialist suppliers such as Cornwall-based Scamp Daffodils, Scottish-based Croft 16, UK-based Avon Bulbs, Broadleigh Bulbs and Shipton Bulbs.

Hunting grounds

Closer to home, a few are listed by online suppliers such as Ringahaddy Daffodils in Killinchy, Co Down, and Mr Middleton. Hester Forde will also be selling some miniature-types at the upcoming Alpine Garden Society Show (Saturday, April 23rd) while the Irish Garden Plant Society (IGPS) plant fairs are also good hunting grounds.

But O’Brien suspects that many historic varieties can still be found growing in our gardens, their names unknown to their owners but still a much-loved part of the garden’s history. After discovering great swathes of Narcissus ‘Frigid’, another of Guy Wilson’s wonderfully ghostly daffodils, growing in an old Carlow garden a couple of years ago, I agree.

If you suspect that you may have some historic Irish varieties in your own garden, then you'll be delighted to know that Mary will be giving a series of talks on Irish daffodils in early April, one in Woodville Walled Garden in Kilchreest, Co Galway and another in Burtown House in Co Carlow (see panel), where she'll do her best to identify any daffodils brought along on the day. Ideally, she'd like to see a sample of the flower and foliage in the flesh but if that's not possible, a photograph will do.

In the meantime, Irish gardeners can enjoy the glory of the daffodil season by visiting the aforementioned gardens as well as many others famed for their wonderful collections of narcissus.

Examples include Altamont and the Delta Sensory Gardens (both in Co Carlow), the National Botanic Gardens in Dublin, Bellefield Gardens in Co Offaly and Lissadell House in Co Sligo.

This week in the garden 

Water pots
Who would have thought, a couple of rain-soaked weeks ago, that I'd be advising you to make sure to water container-grown plants? But such are the vagaries of an Irish spring. There are various easy ways to check whether a plant pot, window box or container needs to be watered, including checking how heavy it is (if it feels light, it's almost certainly in need of a good watering) or sticking your index finger into the top layer of compost to see if it's damp. Wilting leaves aren't a good sign, either.

Heat seedlings
The experienced organic grower Dermot Carey tipped me off recently about heating mats, an excellent alternative to soil- warming cables if you need to give young seedlings and module-raised transplants a head-start and keep them free from frost damage in an unheated glasshouse or polytunnel until they're ready to transplant out later in the season. Available in a range of sizes, online stockists include Cork-based Fruithill Farm (from €165, see

Plant onions
Plant onion, shallot and garlic sets, making sure to give them a weed-free, well-drained , fertile soil in full sun . To stop birds yanking them out, you may need to net them. As these crops are time-consuming to keep free of weeds, many growers prefer to plant the sets into holes burnt/cut into a weed-suppressant membrane such as Mypex, available from most good garden centres.