Caroline Thomson with husband Andrew
Caroline Thomson with husband Andrew

The art and science-inspired daffodil garden

Preservation and daffodils are at the heart of the heritage collection of Backhouse, at Rosfie Arts Garden in Fife.

Caroline Thomson is an artist and sculptor who is a direct descendent of the Backhouse family, the renowned Quaker botanist and ethical banking family from Yorkshire, Caroline is filled with the enthusiasm and dedication that drove her forebears. By the late 19th century the Backhouse family nursery at York was larger than Kew Gardens and employed over 110 people.

The heritage collection, which includes daffodils and other plants, was established shortly after she and with her husband Andrew acquired the property in 2005 following a chance remark by Caroline’s mother, Lady Georgina Buchan-Hepburn.

‘My mother said it would be such a good thing if a member of the family brought the plants and their history together before they are gone forever. This idea germinated and grew into the developing garden which is now here today.’

Caroline Thomson with husband Andrew

Fortunately Georgina had many memories to start the process. ‘To have those living memories and to know what the different daffodils looked like and where they might be found was a huge help,’ she says. Painstakingly, she began sourcing named plants from family gardens, cross referencing stock with catalogues and lists from the RHS and the Lindley Library and overseas. Currently National Collection status is being considered. The Backhouse Centre at Rosfie was established to further horticultural research.

In the process she learnt much about the family influence on many well-known daffodils. William Backhouse (1807-1869), bred the stately, golden yellow ‘Emperor’ and the bi-colour ‘Empress’, two daffodils that form the basis of many modern day cultivars.

William’s second youngest son, Robert Ormiston Backhouse, and his wife, Sarah Elizabeth Dodgson, carried on the family tradition of daffodil breeding; Sarah gained national fame in 1916 by winning the prestigious RHS Barr Cup. Robert Ormiston caused a sensation in the horticultural world when he introduced the pink trumpeted, creamy white petalled daffodil Mrs RO Backhouse, which is available and can be seen in the policies at Rofsie. Robert and Sarah’s son William pursued the creation of the ‘red daffodil’, while other examples of his work are also in the collection.

The beautiful restoration in the garden

To fully understand the precise science behind the lengthy breeding process Caroline embarked on a PhD at Birmingham University.

‘In the first years I barely scratched the surface,’ she says. ‘There is so much detail involved in identifying the daffodils, they change colour and the corona can change shape during the blooming period, it is a protracted effort.’ The task included planting over 10,000 historic daffodil varieties at Rosfie, whose ancestry can be traced back to the original Backhouse daffodils.

The garden developed to include the couples’ joint interest in art, wider horticultural issues and science, while also incorporating bio-dynamic principles into the restored Walled Garden. This space peaks in June, when white Rosa City of York smothers the series of metal arches that span the paths. Leading the way through its wooden door, Caroline explains that the garden incorporates ‘themes of art, science and family, which resonate in the design concepts, layouts and plant selections’.

The garden is divided vertically by parallel yew hedges backing wide herbaceous borders planted on geopolitical grounds which overflow with a wide range of summer plants. ‘Plants from different countries are mixed in together and left to control their own borders in this art work entitled There are no Borders Here,’ says Caroline.

The Rofsie Arts Garden

A horizontal path laid out with cobblestones in the shape of a double helix and inlaid with white, crushed sea shells is laden with symbols. ‘Our joint interests as an engineer and an artist whose combined initials form the bases of DNA became the starting point for the garden,’ explains Caroline. ‘The crushed shells are a reference to cave 13b; and the first evidence of human endeavour were the shell people in South Africa.’

The well-labelled daffodil collection is located in south-east facing beds while the old Victorian glass house, on the walled garden’s south-facing wall, is home to Tree Ferns, which are another Backhouse introduction. Heated by a biomass boiler installed by Andrew, whose interest lies in alternate energy, it features a computerised system attached to the old Victorian pipe work. ‘Part of our philosophy to be a self-sustaining unit where possible. Treading lightly is our aim,’ says Caroline.

The Backhouse Centre and Café are located in the Estate’s outbuildings. The Backhouse Plant Nursery showcases an interesting collection of rare heritage plants and bulbs dating from the mid 1800’s to the mid 1900’s’ cultivated by the family. Heritage display and information about the life and work of the Backhouse Family.

For more details click HERE.