Gardens: Heritage collection is labour of love

Lomond Hills from the Rofsie gardens. Picture: Ray Cox [']
Lomond Hills from the Rofsie gardens. Picture: Ray Cox [']
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THE heritage collection of plants originally bred and introduced by the Backhouse family was started with a remark my mother made during the planning of the new Rofsie Arts Garden at Rossie in Fife,” says Caroline Thomson.

“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, an artist and sculptor, explains that her mother, Georgina, is a direct descendent of the Backhouses, a Quaker family known for botany and ethical banking. The nursery at York was larger than Kew Gardens, employing more than 110 people.

William Backhouse (1807-1869) bred the stately, golden yellow ‘Emperor’ and the bi-colour, ‘Empress’, 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, 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, named after his wife.

The daffodil is still available today and can be seen growing at Rofsie. Their son William pursued the creation of the ‘red daffodil’ and examples of his work are also in the collection.

“My mother had so many stories about the Backhouse daffodils,” Caroline says. “To have those living memories and to know what the different daffodils looked like and where they might be found was a huge help.”

Painstakingly, she began to assemble a collection, sourcing named plants from family gardens, cross referencing stock with catalogues and lists, often from abroad, as well as the RHS and the Lindley Library.

Caroline found, “their support of the project invaluable, we have really been able to push this project forward with their help and other family members.”

The goal is to gain National Collection status for these rare daffodils. “It is so important for future generations to have a living library to refer to.”

In an attempt to understand the science fully behind the lengthy breeding process, Caroline immersed herself in study and was recently accepted for 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.”

This major task included planting more than 10,000 historic daffodil varieties whose ancestry can be traced back to the original Backhouse daffodils.

Other interesting Backhouse-bred or introduced plants are thriving at Rofsie Arts Garden. These include ‘Tree Ferns’, which populate the old Victorian glasshouse sited on the walled garden’s south-facing wall and heated by a bio-mass boiler, which was installed by Caroline’s husband Andrew, an engineer whose honours thesis was on alternative energy.

The new computerised system is attached to the old Victorian pipe work. “Part of our philosophy is to be a self-sustaining unit where possible. Treading lightly is our aim,” explains Caroline.

In 2005, Caroline and Andrew acquired Rossie Estate, which came complete with the rundown 1.5-acre walled garden, the catalyst for buying the property. Entered through an oak door, the space is divided vertically by parallel yew hedges backing wide, stone-edged herbaceous borders planted on “geopolitical grounds”, “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.

Horizontally the space features a striking pathway laid out with cobblestones in the shape of a double helix and inlaid with crushed white sea shells.

Caroline explains: “Our joint interests as an engineer and an artist, whose combined initials form the bases 
of DNA, became the starting point for the garden. The crushed shells 
are a reference to Cave 13b [where the earliest evidence for the exploitation of shellfish has been documented] 
and the first evidence of human endeavour were the shell people in South Africa.”

In summer the metal arches are covered by white, rambling Rosa City of York, a reference to the Backhouse Nursery, which had its origins in York.

Within the south-west quarter an orchard is planted with historic varieties of apple and plum trees. A potager in the north-west quarter contains cut flowers, the daffodil collection and vegetables, which are grown following the principles of bio dynamics.

In the grounds are the remains of a Covenanters tomb. Agile visitors who wish to scale the two old stone styles are welcome to visit on 27 April and the first weekend in June for the Fife Garden Festival.

Rofsie is a personal and thought-provoking garden, reflecting the interests of its owners. Themes of art, science and family resonate in the design concepts, layouts and plant selections.

It is a delightful garden, still evolving, and a glimpse in spring will whet the appetite for a return visit in June, when the potager, pond, grass labyrinth, orchard, shady borders, sunny lawns and woodland walks can be appreciated at their peak.

• Rofsie Arts Garden is open under Scotland’s Gardens on 27 April, from 1pm–4pm ( Tickets for Fife Garden Festival (7-8 June) are only available in advance ( Those presenting festival tickets will gain entry to Rofsie on 27 April at half price.

• Daffodils are surprisingly susceptible to disease and as a result this precious collection is very vulnerable. No dogs are allowed. Visitors are asked to stick to the footpaths and boots have to be disinfected at the entrance to the walled garden.