Sunday, 28 March 2010

Daffydowndilly, Lent Lily, the harbinger of spring

I never saw daffodils so beautiful they grew among the mossy stones about and about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness and the rest tossed and reeled and danced and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the lake, they looked so gay ever glancing ever changing.
Dorothy Wordsworth, Grasmere Journal April 1802

The next plant group that I mention has to be the Daffodil. We have suffered such a long and dark, cold and bitter winter and now spring is being kept held at bay.  So much so that the Daffodil Festival in Thriplow, over the weekend 20/21 March, was widely publicised by the press having fun at its expense, because very few of the daffodils were in flower as it started. They are blatantly still 'feeling the cold' and keeping themselves for a few more days.

This genus has vast hordes of people writing about it, so I am concentrating wholely on the plants we all consider to be common daffodil, despite that being a somewhat complicated idea.  The literature is comprehensive.  I will acknowledge 2 major sources for this blog post.  Alice M Coats performed a remarkable feat in her works on the history of garden plants.  Narcissus appears in Flowers and Their Histories, published in 1956.  Penelope Hobhouse is also a major figure in the research on plants in garden history and published Plants in Garden History in 1992.  In 2002 a book was published by Taylor & Francis edited by G Hanks; Narcissus and Daffodil: The Genus Narcissus as part of a series on medicinal and aromatic plants.  It is on order so I cannot make direct reference to it for this blog post, but there are a couple of comments that I make that have been triggered by its publicity material.

Daffodil or Narcissus?  Both names have origins that may be myths.  Of course it is more scientific to use Narcissus, but Daffodil has long-standing charm and poetic celebration.  They both describe plants that are more diverse in colour and form than those with which the names are immediately associated in popular culture.  Both names in fact originate from the white rather than the yellow form of the plant.  Narcissus is known to be a Greek word and for many years it was thought this was inevitably linked to the myth of the youth tricked into looking into a still pool and seeing his own beautiful reflection for the first time, falling in love and turning into a (white) flower.  The truth is more intriguing, since it comes from Narce according to Pliny in 320BC, which 'betokeneth nummedness or dulnesse of sense', from the intensity of the aroma from the flower.  What makes this intriguing is that eastern daffodils have been found to contain quantities of Galanthamine – a narcotic chemical used in the amelioration of dementia and Alzheimer's.  Daffodil, or daffydilly as Shakespeare had it, is a corruption of Affodyl, in itself based on Asphodel, another often white plant!  The reasons for this connection have yet to be explained.

In the UK, wild daffodil (Narcissus pseudonarcissus) is primarily a woodland plant, behaving in a similar fashion to bluebell but normally flowering earlier in the season.  It often flowers on the First of March, which made it an obvious alternative to the leek for St David's Day adornment.  The period of its peak flowering during Lent in most years led to another old name being Lent Lily.  The wild plant is fairly small with the trumpet cloaked by the outer petals, rather than 'set off' by them as we know in the cultivated form that is so much more abundant.  The photograph was taken by Simon Davey.

There have been two phases of intense interest in growing daffodils in this country.  The first was between the mid 16th and mid 17th centuries as bulbs were collected from the hills of Europe and cultivation began to throw up new hybrids and varieties.  The Iberian peninsula is especially important for the introduction of Narcissus hispanicus, the Great Spanish Daffodil.  This magnificent plant is tall and erect with a proud bright yellow head and is one of the key ancestors for the 'common daffodil' we all think we know so well.  In 1597 Gerard listed a dozen plus different daffodils in his Herball.  Thirty years later Parkinson listed 78.

After this period of activity it all went very quiet and many of Parkinson's list went out of fashion and ceased to be available.  This may have been from a combination of factors that included both changes in the design and layout of parks and gardens that took place in this period, as well as the fall in temperatures that accompanied the Little Ice Age.  The next period of daffodil-raising began about 1837, leading to the widespread travels of Peter Barr (called the Daffodil King) who was able to refind many of the species lost since Parkinson's time.  Since his time the daffodil has gained a substantial place in the hearts of all, with numerous hybrids between yellow and white, multiple stemmed varieties and double-flowered heads that I personally have enormous affection for, but which require copious amounts of water and luck to maintain a stem strong enough to hold the heavy heads.  The Royal Horticultural Society have a Daffodil Register and Classified list from 2008 that contains 27,000 different plants identified as of garden origin up to June 2007.

What struck me very forcibly as I was putting this together was the timing of the two periods of intense cultivation compared to the penning of the lines which have made the daffodil so much a part of our cultural heritage.  Wordsworth went for his walk with his sister Dorothy exactly in the period in which the daffodil was out of favour.  It was to be a further 35 years before the  resurgence of interest began.  I then re-read the lines written by Dorothy in her Journal and thought their description more suited to the wild daffodil than those whose photograph is often put alongside reproductions or quotes of the poem.  Apparently it is widely known among botanists that he was describing wild daffodils, but it came as a surprise to me.  In fact there is a bit of concern about the health and future of the very plants he described, in 2002 the National Trust announced that they are worried that some garden variety plants that have appeared nearby may be hybridising with the Ullswater plants and that they are carrying out research to establish the origin of the new plants and come up with what to do next.  It is with a wry smile that I think of the Poet's Daffodil (otherwise called the Pheasant's Eye Daffodil) also being the white form, an incredibly beautiful plant that has been grown in cultivation for centuries, easily pre-dating Wordsworth, for whom it was never named, of course.

Daffodils herald the spring for us in such a glorious and flamboyant sunniness, encouraging joy and hope even under dark wet conditions.  Snowdrops are an appropriate beginning but we need that yellow for our hearts to lift to meet the rays of the sun.

1 comment:

  1. It is interesting to add a further comment about Galanthamine, but it didn't quite fit the text. The chemical is extracted from several spring bulbs, primarily the Caucasian snowdrop, a Galanthus.
    To me this seems interestingly appropriate for treating age related disorders....