Daffodils as a cut flower are big business in Spring. Remaining a firm florist favourite, the sunny and proud appearance of this signature Spring bloom is one of the first of the bulbs to break in late Winter to let us all know Spring is coming. There are growers that specialise in production of this favoured bulb, than there is Will and Christine Ashburner of Hancock’s Daffodils, who delight in the science and totally reinvent what your perception of the common daffodil is!
The Ashburner’s showcase their varieties at their annual on farm display at Menzies Creek, Dandenong Ranges, from mid August to the end of September and also exhibit at the Royal Adelaide Show, the Leongatha Flower Show, Henty Field Days and Baw Baw Plant Expo. Their road stall out the front of their property alone offers 1,000’s of daffodils bought eagerly by visitors and passers-by. Categories include banded, big & bold, bright cup, cottage double, dainty-cup daffodils, doubles, flat cup, fragrant, frilled, limited release, massed display, miniatures, mixed, modern pink, multi flowered, pastel, pastel pink, pink cup, split-corona, sulphur, white and yellows!
Since childhood, both of the Ashburner’s were avid gardeners and botanical enthusiasts. Christine studied Science majoring in Botany and Will completed his Diploma of Horticulture/ Applied Science, Nursery Management and Production at Burnley and worked for various production nurseries including The Diggers Club for 13 years. The Hancock business history spans over 97 years with the pair taking over the farm and established business in July 2000.
Hancock’s Daffodils was historically founded by an Englishman named Mr H.A. (Harry) Brown, who began breeding and marketing daffodils at Ballarat as far back as 1917. He later moved to Camberwell taking his bulbs with him. Around 1935 he moved the farm to Ferntree Gully where his flower farm was known as Lyndale Gardens. This was on the site of the present Ferntree Gully library and Lyndale Crescent commemorates its previous use. In 1945 Mr Brown sold the business to Mr J.N. (Norman) Hancock, who later moved it to his property at Olinda Creek Road in Kalorama in the Dandenongs. By 1959 Mr E.H. (Ted) Breen had joined the business as a partner, the firm was registered and well known in Australia and overseas as “J.N. Hancock & Co.”
Ted and Ethel Breen took over the company in 1967 when they moved the bulbs to the Breen (who were original Dandenong Ranges settlers) family farm at Menzies Creek. Mrs Beryl Hancock was responsible for the continuation of Mr Brown’s breeding program until 1970 when Mrs Ethel Breen took over this part of the business. Rex and Kath Breen joined Rex’s parents in the business in 1981 and took over completely in 1984 when they retired. They pioneered the use of colour in their catalogues and continued the importation of the best garden varieties from around the world and the release of Hancock’s breeding. It’s a foundation that is being nurtured and developed further by the Ashburner’s with expansive varieties of mini’s, pinks and doubles on an 8 year crop rotation.
The Ashburner’s currently breed 1,000 varieties over a 2 year period yielding 1,000 seedlings and 1,000 plants purely bred for display and to sell to hobbyists, a selection of florists and daffodil die hards. The property spans 35 acres (18 hectares) with one paddock devoted entirely to trials. Will fondly sights similarities to a children’s ‘nursery’ where his comprehensive cross pollination program of daffodil parents produce hybridised offspring and are selected for their vigour and beauty. If they are a keeper, they are transferred to the main paddock where they are planted out for multiple reproduction. If all works well, they will get a few seeds from each cross. These seeds are planted and tended for many years (up to 20!), before the bulb is large enough to produce a flower. Only then do they get to see the results of their work. Once a flower is developed that makes the grade, it is reproduced by asexual reproduction—that is, the bulbs divide and produce new bulbs. If they don’t grow well or succeed, the plant is sold off and the trial process starts all over again. Only the best varieties tested for our climate are released from the long established breeding program and from other breeders world-wide.
It’s a labour of love but one that has defined Hancock’s Daffodils reputation as the last true growers of the traditional specialty range and innovators of in house breeding such as their new release this year of ‘Tutti-Fruti’ – named via their farm naming competition.
The business is an extensive undertaking, with the couple largely running operations themselves. Children Simon and Jessica lend a hand during busier periods and weekends. Daughter Jessica is currently an honours student in agricultural science at the University of Melbourne.
Frequently sought out for his horticultural expertise on garden radio programmes such as 3AW and 3CR, Will is a regular on air guest talking all things gardening. Approaching their centenary in 2017, Hancock’s is in good hands to further their traditional specialty varieties and ongoing commitment to research and breeding.
“We have the niche of the specialist market which appeals to the home gardener and collector. We are also breeding for climate change and the shift in climactic conditions. Daffodils are drought resistant and lay dormant over Summer but their appearance and longevity in flower vary when in season and that is a key factor in our breeding programs over the next 20 years”, Will says.
Read more about our Flower of the Month – The Daffodil – here.