The Daffodil King

The Daffodil King

Peter Barr (1826-1909)

The narcissus or lent lily, more commonly known as the daffodil heralds the start of spring like no other flower, throughout March and April we see them everywhere, they seem to suddenly appear on roadside verges in their thousands all over the UK. We see a daffodil pinned on the jacket lapel of almost everyone we meet in March, and we think of Marie Curie Cancer Care who adopted the daffodil as their emblem in 1986, the charity sells millions of daffodil pin badges every year. We see daffodils and think of our mothers, every year millions of daffodils are received and given on Mothering Sunday, a much favoured choice of flower for a child to give to their Mother as a token of appreciation and love. However, how many people think of “The Daffodil King“, not a king of some fictional fairy land but a Govan man who travelled Europe and further seeking out, collecting, cultivating, classifying and cataloguing different varieties of daffodils.

Peter Barr was born in Stanley Cottage near Copland Road in Govan on the 20th April 1826. His parents, James Barr and Mary Findlay had another 11 children, their father was the owner of a muslin weaving mill, however his business failed and 10 year old Peter had to work as a weaver’s assistant, weaving at this time was still the main industry in Govan village, however Peter much preferred outdoors to the dusty looms within the weaver’s cottages. Peter’s father was a keen gardener who grew tulips, no doubt this is where Peter first developed his love for flowers and in an interview given in 1900 Peter says, “I was born within a few yards of a tulip bed, and I have been amongst flowers ever since.

Encouraging Peter’s interest his father got him a job as a message boy in a seed shop at the Argyle Arcade in Glasgow, there he quickly rose to become manager. Peter continued on learning the business of seedsman and nurseryman in several other ventures and in 1861 he went into partnership with Edward Sugden, establishing their business Barr & Sugden at Covent Garden in London, there Peter Barr cultivated and experimented with lilies, hellebores and tulips. He then became interested in daffodils after reading that 94 varieties of wild daffodils had been growing in British gardens in the early 1600s, few of which were remaining, he set about trying to find these lost varieties, he bought up collections from others and imported wild varieties from France, Spain and Portugal, he used his collection to breed hybrid varieties, creating an extensive catalogue of 361 varieties, he also devised a system of classification for daffodils.

Daffodils were not yet as commercial as tulips and Peter Barr started to promote them, he persuaded the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) to hold a daffodil conference in 1884, as a result the RHS formed a Narcissus Committee who adopted Peter’s classification system. In 1890 a four day daffodil show organised by RHS confirmed the success of Peter Barr’s promotion of the daffodil among commercial growers and all over the UK acres of land were being planted to supply the markets with cut daffodils. Peter also promoted the mass planting of flowers and every year he put on a stunning display of over 2 million plants at his nurseries. The press now dubbed him “The Daffodil King“.

In 1882 Peter’s wife Martha died and Peter travelled several times to Europe flower hunting, it is said that on one trip through Spain Peter climbed alone to the top of a 7000ft mountain where he found a daffodil that had not been cultivated for 250 years. Peter who mainly travelled alone kept a journal of his travels, in one entry he tells of having to pay the full rate for a for a twin bedded room as there were no single rooms available, so annoyed was Peter that he spent half the night in each bed. In another entry he humorously tells of a horseback trip where the horse had lumbago and three of its four legs were lame resulting in the horse moving forward, backward and sideways all at the one time.

After taking his two sons into partnership, Peter retired in 1896 and set out on a 7 year lecture tour promoting the daffodil in China, Japan , Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and the USA. While away Peter became one of the first recipients of the Royal Horticultural Society’s “Victoria Medal of Honour“. On his return in 1903 a daffodil hybrid was named in his honour, the “Peter Barr” it caused a sensation in the horticultural world initially fetching a record £50 per bulb, around £5000 today, we do not have to pay or travel far to see the “Peter Barr” hybrid today as they bloom every spring within the walled garden of Bellahouston Park.

Image of Daffodil named Peter Barr

Peter was described as “A genial, sprightly Scotchman, who wears a Tam O’Shanter cap”, he also wore country tweeds and spoke with a broad Scottish accent. He spent the later years of his retirement in Dunoon and died on the 21st September 1909 while visiting his son in London. Every year since 1912 the RHS has honoured Peter by awarding the “Peter Barr Memorial Cup” to someone for good work of some kind in connection with daffodils.

Perhaps, aside from poet Wordsworth and his “host of golden daffodils” no other man has done more to popularise the daffodil, turning a “wild flower unfit for gardens” into the popular flower we know and love today. Maybe the next time you see daffodils in Spring you will think of Peter BarrGovan’s own Daffodil King.

The following poem “The Daffodil King” is from “Neptune’s Toll and Other Verses” by John MacLennan, (published 1907), the poem was written during Peter’s visit to New Zealand.

The Daffodil King

Ye birds of May draw near,
Awaken, faded flowers, from death—
The King of flowers is here.

For long, ye winds, he braved your worst,
In climes of sun and snow,
To watch the velvet sods that burst
When Daffodillies grow.

Where’er Narcissi broke the mould,
To herald in the spring,
His lips their graceful beauty told,
And so they made him King.

Then hark, Zealandia’s sons—where fond
The mounts and lakes combine
Around this heart of ours, the bond
Of kinship to entwine—

Be kind ere yet your chance be lost
A welcome to impart,
So he may know that southern frost
Ne’er penetrates the heart;

But as at sweet September’s gates
Narcissus bides the spring,
So warm a southern welcome waits
The Daffodilly King.