Daffodils, the harbingers of spring and other things
Englishman Steve Marcham was travelling New Zealand with his partner a decade ago when he answered an advertisement for a gardener-handyman at an old house just outside Christchurch.
Driving up the gently curved carriageway to Otahuna Lodge in Tai Tapu for an interview, he quickly realised this was no ordinary house.
"I thought 'wow'; I didn't think there was somewhere like this here. It is very much like home, growing up in the Cotswolds, and I worked at places like this when I was studying horticulture."
Steve was one of the first people hired by Miles Refo and Hall Cannon, two New Yorkers who bought Otahuna in 2006. Fresh from a frenetic job as a key account manager for a landscaping firm in London, Steve arrived at an old Edwardian garden with sweeping lawns, woodlands and kereru whooshing overhead.
As head gardener, he is responsible for 12 hectares, about 8ha of which is in gardens and the rest is farmland, raising pigs, sheep and chickens for the kitchen. Every day from November onwards, Steve brings in a tray of vegetables and fruit for the chef to use in five-course degustation meals.
And every day, Steve arrives at the front door with baskets of fresh flowers – arum lilies, dahlias, chrysanthemums, hippeastrum and lisianthuses – to fill the lodge's 20-odd vases and scent the air.
But, undoubtedly, the flower for which Otahuna is best known, and which attracts brides and romantics from all over the world, is the daffodil.
Beneath a huge oak tree and across a lake from the luxury lodge, which was built by politician Sir Heaton Rhodes in 1895 as a wedding present for his wife, lies a field of dreams.
Every spring, thousands of yellow, cream and orange daffodils open in a "look at me" spectacle.
"It is an amazing sight. I look at them, especially coming to work in the morning, and you get this wave of yellow. You cannot not notice them when they're in full flower," Steve says.
One of Steve's early predecessors, Alfred Lowe, loved daffodils. Also British, he trained at Kew Gardens and started working at Otahuna in 1895. He became an expert at breeding and naturalising daffodils and his influence extended beyond Otahuna's gates.
Alfred organised public bulb sales each year. After Alfred's death in 1924, Sir Heaton donated the proceeds from the bulb sales towards the building of the library in Tai Tapu. Bulbs from Otahuna were gifted to form part of the collection in Christchurch's Botanic Gardens.
After the 2011 earthquakes, when business had slowed, Miles dug up two square metres of the daffodil paddock and lifted and counted the bulbs. There were 416 and extrapolating from this, he estimates there are more than a million bulbs.
Of the million bulbs, Steve estimates only 5 per cent actually flower.
"But when you've got a million bulbs, that's a lot of flowers. They are crowded, so one day they will need to be lifted and separated and spread out a little."
While Otahuna isn't hosting a public daffodil day this year, the lodge does welcome groups of 10 or more for guided tours by prior appointment year-round for $20 a person.
If there is daffodil royalty in Christchurch, long-time breeder David Adams is a true yellow-blood.
A self-described "thinker and day dreamer", he has spent the past five decades in pursuit of the perfect daffodil, both as a breeder at his home in rural Yaldhurst and as an international daffodil judge.
Daffseek, the daffodil photo database sponsored by the American Daffodil Society, records 32,000 varieties of this flower. But hybridisers such as David are driven by the desire to create yet more.
"You're the one who has sex in the garden. You put pollen from one flower into another, then collect the seed and grow it on. It takes five years from seed to the first flower, so it's a long process," David says. "If you're on a breeding programme and to get what you want takes say three generations, you're looking at about 20 years."
David, 70, isn't easy to find. On the phone, he tells me to drive past the Yaldhurst Hall, through a roundabout and after a certain landmark, look for a flax bush. There is no street number or signage; just the flax bush. A small innocuous-looking daffodil 'Bambi' in the driveway is the first indicator I've arrived in daffodil utopia.
There was talk years ago of a thief driving to a daffodil property and digging up bulbs. David is not taking any chances with his precious bulbs, some of which have been sold to the Netherlands in a Coals-to-Newcastle scenario. It's not just money at stake, but the decades invested in breeding.
Born in Oxford and raised in Sheffield, David is a second-generation daffodil grower. His farmer father, Les Adams, showed daffodils as well as Jersey cattle, Southdown sheep and poultry.
"He got me into growing daffodils as well and I had my own little collection when I was about eight," David says.
Success came early – a best in show at the Oxford Methodist Daffodil Show – when David was just 12 and at Sheffield Primary School.
But fate interrupted David's daffodil career at 14 years old, when his Dad died. The family home was sold and the daffodil bulbs dug up and discarded.
It was while attending a Canterbury Horticultural Society daffodil show in the early 1970s that David again felt the pull of the daffodil.
"I said to Leitha 'I think I'd like to do that again'. That almost led to an obsession."
The society's daffodil circle embraced the couple, dispensing bulbs and advice on breeding. From renowned daffodil breeder David Bell in Templeton, David bought about a dozen varieties and entered the novice section of the society's daffodil show in 1974. He won a collection of bulbs from a breeder at Broadfields and on picking up his prize, discovered it was sugar sacks full of them.
"We lived on a 700sqm section in town, so the vege garden got taken over by daffodils and so did our life," David says.
David became involved in the National Daffodil Society and international daffodil groups. He exhibits daffodils throughout New Zealand and in Australia, and judges globally.
"There's the challenge of competition and the creativity of breeding your own. I absolutely believe there is incredible satisfaction in making something. It's yours; it's nobody else's," he says.
"We've travelled to England, Northern Ireland and Holland and I've been honoured to judge at the Royal Horticultural Society. We just had a World Daffodil Convention in St Louis [in the United States] in April. They selected an elite panel of judges and I was one of those."
But it's perhaps at home, sprinkling pollen and dreaming up new varieties, that David is happiest. In one case, David put some jonquil pollen on to a double daffodil.
"Nobody else had done it, so that was a bit unique. I got these little double daffodils with a jonquil fragrance."
He sold this variety, which he named 'Little Kiwi', to a visiting Netherlands buyer for $100 a bulb. Instead of royalties, which some international breeders insist upon, David asked a price he thought nobody would pay. The buyer didn't flinch. Even then, David wasn't greedy.
"He ordered one bulb at $100 and I put a couple of extras in."
After a new variety has been confirmed comes the joy of naming the arrival. So far, David has named 150 daffodils, often after places and rivers of his childhood – 'Waimakariri', 'Waipara', 'View Hill' and 'Flagpole'. 'Waituke' (Y2K) is his millennium daffodil. 'Flying Hawk' looks like a cyclamen with its swooshed-back petals.
"We're striving for the perfect daffodil; new colours and types. They've got pink into the petals now, so we're not far away from an all-pink daffodil. We've got the green ones and the orange ones. They've gone from mauve, getting into blue and this is without genetic engineering. It's just someone seeing a characteristic of a flower and enhancing it."
ONE MILLION BLOOMS
Leeston farmers June and Stu McLachlan's love affair with the daffodil started casually 20 years ago.
On a visit to the Templeton property of grower Dr Graham Shanks, the couple picked a bunch of mixed daffodils. Back at their 1920 farm homestead, they watched in awe as buds burst open in a Disney Fantasia of hues and shapes.
"For a first-timer, the variety was mind-boggling. The vase sat on the dining room table for two weeks and we'd turn it every time we sat for a meal and we'd choose a new favourite. We were seduced," June says.
When the Templeton bulb collection came up for sale in 1997, the McLachlans' tender was accepted.
"At that stage, the collection was in a one-acre paddock with lots of shelter and they were knee-high and looked fabulous. We were very naive," June says. "We're entrepreneurial and we thought it looked like a potential investment and we were both young enough then."
The sliding-doors moment changed the course of their lives. Two decades on, the joy they experienced from the vase of daffodils is replicated on a grand scale. Each spring, a million blooms in hundreds of varieties cover eight hectares of their 275ha farm.
The venture supplies the commercial flower market with choice cut blooms. They're sold through Floramax – the flower auction – and directly to shops. At the farm gate, bunches are sold from a roadside wagon.
Daffodil joy is spread far and wide. Rest homes, Probus clubs and other community groups visit for the thrill of picking their own daffodils and learning about their cultivation. Bulbs are made available to charities, such as the Cancer Society, at minimal cost, for fundraising.
Private clients buy bulbs to begin their own daffodil plantations. Bulbs, which aren't so affected by fickle and changing weather patterns, are an increasing part of the successful business.
Working in intoxicating fields of daffodils sounds idyllic, but behind the romantic notion there is hard, physical toil, particularly for June, the chief daffodil grower.
This autumn, a converted potato planter helped plant six hectares of daffodils over three days. The frenetic picking season is about to begin (dry winters mean a later flowering season). Daffodils are harvested daily by expert pickers for five to six weeks.
"At the height of the season, you would imagine lots of pickers, but if I picked everything I would flood the market and I'm only looking for certain varieties and quality. At most, I would have three pickers out there in a day and they're usually regulars," June says.
"I only sell the best and I can't have just anyone picking. And I watch the quality."
Personally, June likes the less traditional white daffodil with a white cup.
But don't be fooled, daffodils are not all sweetness and cheer, either.
"The juice from the stems is so toxic, wounds become very proud and weepy, so I definitely need to take care of my hands. Some pickers have had severe reactions on their hands and faces. I certainly warn all my visitors to wash their hands before they eat. I tend to surprise people when I tell them that if you ate a bulb it could kill you," June says.