The Last Days of Ebullient Ralph Sowell’s Daffodil Collection

Small flowered daffodils

My sweetheart was sorry to hear that his affable gardening friend Ralph Sowell of Jackson, Mississippi, had died and, because his printing company’s property was to be repurposed, his raised beds brimming with many dozens of award-winning daffodils and hybrid daylilies had to go.

It turned out that the garden needed to be emptied more quickly than expected, and unfortunately the daffodils were at the peak of bloom or just about to flower. Bulbs physically empty out when they produce flowers and need a few weeks of sunlight energy hitting the growing leaves to re-fatten for next season. The size and diversity of Ralph’s collection added an extra challenge.

Daffodils from Ralph Sowell's collection

By the time I saw the area, Ralph’s daughters and volunteers had left after rehoming as many plants as they were able to. The beds were in disarray, with hollow dips showing where plants had been removed, but it was easy to sense the care and dedication that had gone into both building and dispersing the collection.

A bulldozer was on site to tear up the raised beds and plough in the remaining bulbs, but the driver was about to leave for the day as recent rain had waterlogged the lower lying parts of the site, giving us a small window of opportunity.

Posy of mixed daffodils

I did what any of you would do – walked round lamenting Ralph’s loss (although I had never met him, his daffodils were eloquent character witnesses), picking a few of the flower stems and pointing out pockets of daffodils that had been reluctantly left to their fate, but seemed worth saving.

My sweetheart’s garden has few vacant spaces and a plant queue in waiting, and his heart was heavy to think of what happens when a keen gardener dies. After some negotiation, we agreed still to pick out one last clump each.

While several of the more unusual specimens were tempting, we both went for resilience and flower power.

Daffodils with anole glass
My choice

I liberated a shining daffodil covered in buds that produces several white and yellow flowers per stem.

Jonquil daffodil (Narcissus jonquilla)
Narcissus jonquilla

My sweetheart likes the dainty flowers, fragrances and quill-like leaves of jonquils, so he chose a sweetly scented Narcissus jonquilla.

Tree frog in a bottle

A friendly tree frog was watching us from between daffodil leaves and, not fancying its chances against the bulldozer, we decided to rehome it in our lush water garden. A few days later, we returned to find only a freshly ploughed field, so it had likely escaped a gruesome end.

Flowers from Ralph Sowell's daffodil collection

I’m a poor witness to the breadth and beauty of the Ralph Sowell daffodil collection having only seen it in the last few hours of its history and can only imagine how happily Ralph, his family, friends and colleagues must have contemplated the garden in its full glory when these cheerful flowers were at the height of bloom.

All the daffodils you see here were part of Ralph’s collection. I’ve tried to give a flavour of their forms and colours but as it was hot and sunny I daren’t linger, not wanting them to wilt.

My sweetheart said his one word description of Ralph would be ‘ebullient’ (cheerful, upbeat, enthusiastic), adding he was the type of person just a moment away from bursting into song. I’d say his flowers share something of that nature.

Daffodils

While it was chastening to see the daffodils that got left behind, it’s a comfort to think that the many plants moved will be spreading joy in their new homes for years to come. And after all, daffodils are tough plants: I doubt there is any that has come down to us over the decades without surviving challenging conditions, be that drought, freezing cold, blistering heat or yes, even bulldozers.

41 Replies to “The Last Days of Ebullient Ralph Sowell’s Daffodil Collection”

  1. Yes! About to burst into song! That is such a good description of daffodils, especially in such numbers. I applaud your choice; the white around the gold-yellow is elegant. It is wonderful that many have been saved not just for their own beauty but for the memorial they are. Thanks for a big gulp of spring on this dark, drippy day!

    1. That variety was very insistent on being chosen. I started to wonder if you’d imagine a choir of singing daffodils would be easier to live with than ducks or geese, then decided not to go down those lines.

  2. Oh, my! A sad story. Yes, I know many bulbs were saved, and I was particularly happy to read that little frog didn’t fall victim to the bulldozer. But still! However, your luminous photos capture some of the beauty of Ralph’s collection. A lovely tribute to Ralph.

  3. It’s sad to think of an entire collection being bulldozed, I hope family and friends managed to rescue the majority, it would be heartbreaking to lose a species. What really astonishes me though is that daffodils grow in Mississippi! Are you over there now?

    1. I hope so too. I am. Daffodils grow fine in Mississippi, although some varieties naturalise more easily than others. Tulips are mainly grown as annuals. The plants I miss most are herbaceous geraniums. There is a wild one, but it has insignificant flowers, even compared to a Herb Robert.

  4. Hi Susan, I am one of Ralph’s daughters. We worked fiercely in his garden, trying to rescue as many flowers as we could before they were destroyed. We are planting them in a large garden at my home; we shared them with family and friends; and your sweetheart and other volunteers took bulbs to plant at home and surrounding gardens in our area. Thanks for being a part of that effort. His legacy will live on!!

    1. It will! I’m so pleased you’ve left a comment here with more information about the collection. It must have been a bittersweet time when you came to move the collection, but so lovely that your father will live on through your gardens as well as in your hearts.

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