The Ugliest Daffodil in the World: the Derwydd
So, it's a funny looking little thing, but the Welsh are dang proud of it. And they have the right to be because this unique little daffy-dill dates back, some say to the time of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table. Unproven, of course, but we would like to think it true.
Some people call it “the ugliest daffodil in the world” because it has strangely contorted blooms. The Derwydd was once thought extinct by horticulturists in the United Kingdom, and its rediscovery was hailed as miraculous. However, this little miracle monkey-faced flower has bloomed for over 100 years in my ancestral family cemetery in Tennessee in the United States.
My family mistakenly referred to it as “the Johnston buttercup.” Why they call it a buttercup, I have no clue because it's a daffodil. Officially, it is the Welsh Derwydd Daffodil, which is named after a garden in Llandybie in Carmarthenshire, where it was originally found. Derwydd is Welsh for “oaks”.
The Derwydd Daffodil is the Narcissus obvallaris, often referred to as the “Thomas’ Virescent Daffodil”. My family is fortunate to possess the flore pleno varity, which is a double daffodil with green-tinged flowers that often appear twisted and misshapen. Most of the time the flowers are predominantly green and the blooms seem to turn more yellow as they age. But enough of this boring botany-speak.
I wonder how my father's family originally came to possess "extinct" Welsh daffodils in the United States and if they brought them over when they immigrated in the 1750s. It is possible. We hailed from Clan Johnston(e) in Dumfrieshire, Scotland, via Ireland, but a DNA test on my brother showed us to belong to the Welsh Clendinnings. How did the Welshman get into the woodpile, or yet, my ancestor's bed? Where is our Welsh connection? More about that later, but here is how I came to possess these in the State of Arkansas in the central United States.
I was given the bulbs from a distant cousin, named Jim, who lives in Tennessee. We met up here in Arkansas when he was studying for his doctorate at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
After Jim completed his doctorate, he and his wife moved back to Tennessee and we stayed friends. One day he surprised me by asking if I would like some old family heirloom plants. He said they came from the family cemetery, which dates way back before the Civil War, but our ancestor, Calvin Johnston, planted them not too long after the war was over. He called them "Johnston buttercups."
According to Jim, about 100 years ago the cemetery was abandoned and the plants were left to wander and either die or flourish on their own. About 10 years ago, he and some friends decided to clean up the wild tangled mess, and they found the daffodils growing wild all over the cemetery coexisting with the briers and roses.
I’m glad that Jim didn’t tell me how funny looking they were or I might have turned him down. I guess I was expecting a flowerbed full, but he sent me only three bulbs. To ensure that at least one of them survived, I planted one in the flowerbed in the back of the house, one in the front and one in a pot. Only the plant in the front of the house lived and stubbornly hung on, but then I thought I was losing it because each year the little plant came back more anemic than ever. It really was a weak unattractive little flower, and unlike my ordinary jonquil daffodils, it never had more than one or two ugly little blooms. It was so unattractive that I decided I didn't care.
The Little Rock area is in planting zone 8, and I did wonder if it might be affected by the mild Southern winters. Trees on the vacant lot had grown up and shaded the flowerbed. Maybe that was its problem. That theory didn't hold water.
The winter of 2014 was cold and very harsh, and in the spring the puny little thing came back healthy and colorful. I came to the mistaken conclusion that the frozen ground with the ice and snow was what perked it up. It still only managed three blooms, but I was able to see its beauty and fall in love with it. It became even more attractive when I learned its colorful history.
My ancestral cemetery c. 1850
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.
The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed- and gazed- but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
Wye Mountain, Arkansas
Not a buttercup
The Horticultural society in Carmarthenshire had thought it extinct but they exclaimed in delight when some were found growing in a flower bed in England. That is when I decided to delve further into the plant and its true history, and maybe find a logical connection to us. So here goes.
The result of my brother’s DNA test came back that we were not genetic Johnstons at all, but Clendennings by blood. When researching the Clendennings of Wales, I found them to have a much older and more colorful history than the Johnston Clan, so I was pleased that we weren't some unknown hooligans. The daffodil has a strong connection to the Clendennings, whom researchers say go back farther than Llywelyn the Great (born 1173). (Never heard of him? I hadn't either until I researched the Derwydd.) Nevertheless, the Clendennings have a strong attachment to King Henry Tudor and aided his side in the War of the Roses, as did the Johnston Clan. In fact most of the border reiver clans fought for the Tudors, and this may be where the twain did meet.
The mystery is, when did we get a Clendenning in the family and did they possess the Derwydd daffodil and pass it on to the Johnstons? Is it possible that this daffodil is more prevalent than the Welsh horticultural society imagined? After their aghast finding of one growing in Gower, people in the UK were popping up all over the place saying that the Derwydd daffodils had been growing in their flowerbeds all along. I think the big question was, "Why didn't you ask?"
Alas and alack, my theory was shot to shreds when my little Derwydd did not bloom this year. In fact, I’m not sure that it even came up. Our winter was in fact colder with just as much ice and snow as last year, if not more. I searched diligently before, during, and after the blooming season of the daffodils. I contacted Cousin Jim who said that his didn't bloom either. Maybe they just poop out and have to rest after a good season.
I hope that I have not lost my Derwydd to some unknown disease, but I won’t know until next year. Until then I will anxiously await the blooming season and hope for the best.
I do wonder if I possess the only Derwydd daffodil in the State of Arkansas. Please feel free to comment, especially if you have some growing in your yard or old family cemetery.
Update September 23, 2015
Reader interest and comments on this article are astounding to me. When I wrote this article, I had no idea it would generate this type of response. I am so very surprised and pleased with the positive feedback. In fact, if my Derwydd ever generates more bulbs, I am thinking about planting some of them on my grandfather Johnston's grave in my hometown. Thank you all -- and keep those comments coming.
2016 -- the little Derwydd did not come up at all.
2017-- It came up and had one bud that did not open. I'm afraid it isn't getting enough sunshine and I plan to move it to a sunny location this fall.