The daffodil and the eelworm

The name of James Kirkham Ramsbottom deserves to be far better known, on a par with the lovely daffodils immortalised by Wordsworth

James Kirkham RamsbottomBorn in Bradford on 11 October 1891, JKR became a student at RHS Garden Wisley and was eventually awarded a gold medal and scholarship in the RHS examination. His most important work involved narcissi and the eelworm Tylenchus devastratix – good name, as its infestations by the late nineteenth century and into the early part of the twentieth century had resulted in the depletion, to the point of devastation, of many collections of narcissi bulbs grown commercially for displays and for use in private gardens.
The species in this genus are all botanically classified as narcissi, although the trumpet narcissi, which have a central trumpet as long as, or longer than, the surrounding petals, are usually known as daffodils. The microscopic stem and bulb eelworm invades the bulb tissues and causes an internal discolouration of the bulb scales. This shows as a brown ring-rot when affected bulbs are cut across. In severe infestations, the stems, leaves and flowers are discoloured, and the plants are weakened and killed.
1917 bulb catalogue of James Carter & Co. The daffodils illustrated are Narcissus 'Sir Watkin' and N.'Emperor'At the RHS Conference in 1887 the concern of growers had been marked. The situation had become so critical by 1916 that a resolution was proposed at the RHS Narcissus and Tulip Committee on 28 March that year to request that the RHS Council initiate research and experiments to establish the life history of the daffodil eelworm and to discover the best means of killing the pest without killing the daffodil bulb infested by it. At this time (1914-16), JKR was assistant editor on Gardeners’ Magazine, but was invited by the RHS to begin his trials to discover an effective treatment. In so doing, he built on earlier work in Scotland, Denmark and at the Board of Agriculture on the use of hot water as a control against mites, smuts and bulb fly larvae.
In April 1917 the RHS Council abandoned its planned Daffodil Show and instead on 8 May 1917, to the audience of the Horticultural Club, JKR read his paper ‘Investigations on the Narcissus Disease’, with the full report being published in the May 1917 RHS Journal.
To quote some key extracts: ‘As a result of the splendid response of the growers [for diseased specimens] hundreds of bulbs passed through my hands even during the first weeks of the investigations and thousands of slides were prepared... It will be of interest to hybridists to mention the fact that Tylenchus has been found in both the mature and immature carpels of the flowers... Tylenchus can be dried for lengthened periods looking as if dead, yet still retaining the power of resuming vital functions on being moistened... Many bulb growers look upon the disease as “one of Nature’s gifts” and are of the opinion that the bulbs will ultimately right themselves. Suffice it to say that if the bulbs are left to right themselves, the bulb industry will soon cease to exist.’
Daffodil steralising unitAbout his experiments using three ranges of temperature, he wrote: ‘The ease with which eelworms could be killed by direct heat led the writer to believe that soaking the bulbs in warm water might lead to a possible means of control’ and he concluded: ‘The preventive method which promises best results is that of soaking the bulbs for a period of from two to four hours in water at a constant temperature of 43ºC (110ºF), and providing a suitable apparatus be found so that the bulbs may be given correct treatment, it will afford an economical means of combating the disease. At the same time it must be pointed out that this soaking will not prevent attack by eelworms present in the soil. Other experiments are on foot this autumn and the treatment of infested ground, and susceptibility of crops to attack, are phases of the subject which are under experiment.’
The news of JKR’s successful work rapidly spread far and wide and even attracted overseas visitors who came to gather data, investigate and thoroughly study his experiments and methods. As a result, thousands of Narcissus varieties were sterilised and saved, and continued in cultivation in the UK and in Holland. 50 years later it was found that JKR’s middle range of temperature, 45-46ºC (114-115°F), for four hours, gave more satisfactory results.
By 1924 JKR was assistant editor of Gardeners’ Chronicle and in that year, in appreciation of his invaluable work on the eelworm, the RHS honoured him with the Peter Barr memorial Cup.* During a lecture tour in the United States in 1925, JKR fell from a high hotel window in New York and died, aged 33, on 9 February.
Should anyone wish to pay their respects to this unsung saviour of the English spring, he is buried at Richmond Cemetery, Section V, grave number 4850.

References used

  • Reader’s Digest Encyclopaedia of Garden Plants and Flowers, 1971
  • The Daffodil Yearbook, 1940
  • ‘How Ramsbottom gave new life to the Narcissus’ by Matthew Zandbergen (Sassenheim, Holland),
  • Journal, Royal Horticultural Society, 1918

* Peter Barr (1826-1909), later known as ‘The Daffodil King’, founded the firm Barr & Sons in 1882, one of the most famous plant nurseries in Britain.

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