Daffodils – Natural histories of extraordinary species that changed our world
It’s late March and a rapier wind is doing its best to deny spring. We’re being tugged westwards, after checking Met Office reports and calendar to catch the flowers at their fleeting best. Our goal is a corner of Gloucestershire where the M50 burrows through oak and fir woods east of Ross-on-Wye. Get the timing right and they are obvious even at speed from the car, pale yellow stars over-brimming the coppice and spilling down the motorway embankments as if the wood were too full to hold them: wild daffodils.
Wild flowers have always nourished our senses as well as providing more tangible comforts in the form of herbal remedies and foods, but few have the daffodil’s power to get under our skin. Poets have famously fallen under their spell. Their charm may lie in the impertinence of their sudden appearance in the teeth of a March gale.
There’s also a disbelief, perhaps, that such a flamboyant flower is at large in our countryside: daffodils are as blowsy and exotic as the finest orchids. We can also measure our lives against their appearance. Like a spring snowfall, the delights of daffodils are short-lived, a bittersweet reminder of the year’s turning. They appear as blue-green stubs as early as January, pushing through the packed winter earth or snow, and as winter wanes the green pod-shaped flower buds extend beyond the leaves. Shaking off the dry papery sheath, the flower unfurls, a halo of half petals/half sepals called tepals surrounding the corona, better known as the trumpet. The sweet scent attracts pollinating insects, especially bumblebees and some hoverflies that cross-fertilise the flowers. For some people it’s the quintessence of spring, but for others it has a whiff of animal waste, because of chemicals known as indoles which not everyone can detect. Some even go as far as to warn of the risk of placing a vase of daffodils in a bedroom at night: a nasty headache in the morning. Happily daffodil hangovers aren’t a serious problem, but they are a reminder of the origins of its name. Narcissus derives from the Greek narcao, to numb.
Once native wild daffodils were common throughout the British Isles. The herbalist John Gerard described them as ‘having narrowe leaves, thicke, fat, and full of slimie juice; among the which riseth up a naked stalke smooth and hollow, of a foot high’ and noted that in the late sixteenth century they grew ‘almost everywhere through England’. They spread rapidly by seed and especially by division of the bulbs, leading to natural clumps as new plants arise around the parents.
Heading towards Gloucestershire, gardens are already bright in every shade of yellow, but these are cultivated plants. Along with the rose, the daffodil is probably the most malleable British wild flower. Over centuries, we have hybridised daffodils of many species, subspecies and forms to produce a stunning array of varieties. Daffodils are naturally variable and growers have harnessed and hand-pollinated these variations to produce over 27,000 named varieties and hybrids. Our native daffodil has been crossed with Mediterranean varieties including Narcissus cyclamineus and Narcissus tazetta to produce large and colourful trumpets, from fiery orange to salmon pink, petals of cream, yellow and white, and multiflowered and double varieties. On the way, the real wild daffodil has become increasingly marginalised in the modern countryside. Its bolder, brasher cultivars are now big business for florists and the horticulture trade. Planted in battalions on verges and village greens, they overshadow the wild plants, but in places the native is thriving thanks in part to poetic protection and, as we shall see, an increasing affection for its place in the landscape.
Our wild native daffodil (Narcissus pseudonarcissus) is disarming en masse or alone. Singly, the flowers are small and delicate, butter-and-cream-coloured, the outer tepals paler than the deep yellow trumpet. The poet Gerard Manley Hopkins noted the glistening quality of the tepals: ‘the bright yellow corolla is seeded with very fine spangles which give it a glister and lie on a ribbing which makes it like a cloth of gold’. In sunlit meadows, they grow in dense sheaves, colouring the whole pasture. In shady woods and dingles, where the light is filtered through the tree canopy, the flowers are sparser and scattered among the blue-green grasslike leaves, in a constellation rather than a solid carpet.
The way each flower faces slightly downwards, and the fact that they can often be found growing along the edge of rivers and lakes, could well have inspired the story of Narcissus in classical mythology. In Ovid’s version of the story in Metamorphoses, Narcissus became notorious for cruelly rebuffing all suitors. When one rejected lover prayed ‘may he love like me and love like me in vain’, the goddess of vengeance made him fall in love with himself and beautiful Narcissus wasted away, entranced by his own reflection in a pool. The ruddy pinks of his healthy complexion turn to a jaundiced yellow and he dies. After death his body changes into a beautiful flower, a narcissus or daffodil: ‘when looking for his corps they only found / A rising stalk with yellow blossoms crown’d’.
Pliny the Elder, such a strong believer in empirical evidence that his death was the result of his inability to pass up the opportunity of personally cataloguing the volcanic eruption at Pompeii, argued that the plant’s name Narcissus rather derives from the numbing, narcotic qualities of their bulbs and leaves, rather than from the story of Narcissus.
From benumbing to entrancement is a small step and daffodils have always entranced poets. In the corners of north Gloucestershire and south Herefordshire, wild daffodils put on a more spectacular display but they are always associated with Cumbria, thanks to William Wordsworth’s celebrated poem. But their first literary appearance was in this diary entry, written by William’s sister Dorothy on 15 April 1802:
When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow park we saw a few daffodils close to the water side, we fancied that the lake had floated the seed ashore & that the little colony had so sprung up – But as we went along there were more & yet more & at last under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road. I never saw daffodils so beautiful they grew among the mossy stones about & about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness & the rest tossed and reeled and danced & seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the Lake, they looked so gay ever dancing ever changing. This wind blew directly over the lake to them. There was here & there a little knot & a few stragglers a few yards higher up but they were so few as not to disturb the simplicity & unity & life of that one busy highway.
Two years later William, who had seen them with her, wrote his best-known poem:
I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills
When all at once I saw a crowd
A host of golden daffodils
Beside the lake, beneath the trees
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.
Dorothy’s observations of the flowers had been turned into something deeper. The poem’s popularity, according to Professor Sally Bushell of the University of Lancaster, lies in its rhythm and simplicity. Because it was easy to memorise and recite, it became a favourite in schools and among poetry groups. But within its simplicity, the principles of Romanticism are still strong. The famous first line of Keats’s poem that opens this chapter runs ‘A thing of beauty is a joy forever’: here Wordsworth captures and holds the experience to remember and revisit:
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.
It’s the thought that counts. The poem has been described by ex-Poet Laureate Andrew Motion as ‘not a great poem, but … a poem of real charm’. It certainly brings in the tourists. When recording on location for Natural Histories on the shores of Ullswater, we were accompanied by a coach party, snapping away at the diminutive flowers at their feet, picking a path through the turf of glaucous leaves. There weren’t exactly a host of golden daffodils, but enough to make a local impression in this strip of stony woodland, sandwiched between road and lake.
But to see wild daffodils really colour the countryside, you need to go to the borders of Gloucestershire and Herefordshire where around the villages of Dymock and Kempley they grow in ready-made bunches in the pastures, under orchard trees and in open woods. Even where fields have been ploughed, they hang on as a yellow tidemark under the hedges, peering out from the sheltering thorns. So frequent were the wild daffodils that the area was once known as the Golden Triangle.
These daffodils inspired another group of poets. For a brief period between 1911 and 1914, Dymock was the haunt of several poets including Rupert Brooke, Robert Frost and Edward Thomas. The best-known poem written there was Robert Frost’s ‘The Road Not Taken’. It’s since become a mantra for lifestyle ‘gurus’ who see it as a meditation on choice and outcomes, but Frost never intended it to be deeply philosophical. The poem was rather a comment on his fellow poet Edward Thomas. Thomas and Frost took long walks together to explore the local woods and fields. Thomas carefully contrived routes aimed at taking in particular views or special wildlife but at the end of the walk would sometimes regret not taking a more productive path:
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood.
And sorry I could not travel both,
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth …
Why a yellow wood? You only have to visit the woods around Dymock now to see that daffodils line the paths and flood the clearings before the spring greenery appears. When Frost was there in the last spring before the Great War, they would have been an arresting sight.
The Dymock daffodils were far more than a poet’s fancy. They were valuable to local people because they provided hard cash at the start of the season before the orchards and fields produced their intended crops. In the 1930s a Daffodil Special train run by the Great Western Railway brought carriage-loads of spring-hungry Londoners to Ledbury and Newent, eager to stroll among the flowers and buy bunches. Daffodil picking was a national pursuit in many parts of Britain at Easter when the ‘Lenten Lilies’ were at their best, in demand for Mothering Sunday in March or for sale at London flower markets. In Yorkshire, Devon and Cornwall, they brought extra income to farmers, villagers and gypsies who hawked the flowers to tourists. Schoolchildren were often pulled out of school and pressed into service as daffodil pickers. Another local poet (this time from Ledbury), John Masefield, observed them:
And there the pickers come, picking for town
Those dancing daffodils: all day they pick.
Hard-featured women, weather-beaten brown,
Or swarthy-red, the colour of old brick.
Part of the charm of wild daffodils was where they were found. Although widespread before the Second World War, they were especially common in Cumbria, the south-west of England, Yorkshire and the Welsh Marches, often where the climate was damp and the soils moist. Picking didn’t seem to diminish their numbers, but from the 1940s and 1950s onwards more damaging processes were at work. With the coming of agricultural mechanisation and industrialisation, many of the daffodils’ old meadows were ploughed up and the bulbs destroyed, sometimes deliberately because they are poisonous to livestock. In places woods were coniferised to provide fast-growing softwood timber of fir, larch, pine and spruce, casting a dense shade in which the flowers would not grow and then the hedges, which were their last refuges, were grubbed out. The wild daffodil was in decline. In 1959 the Daffodil Special stopped running to Dymock, even though the area remained a more reliable stronghold for the plants.
But this story, unlike so many other modern tales of wildlife and agriculture, has a happy ending. In this rural corner of Britain, the pace of change proved slow enough to spare some of the flowers in woods, meadows and orchards. Perhaps their value as a wild crop also prolonged their existence here. Whatever the reasons, wild daffodils are once more celebrated as part of the local landscape and culture and are a tourist attraction again. There is now a 16-kilometre circular route known as the Daffodil Way, which follows public footpaths through yellow woods, meadows and orchards, linking the best spots to see them. Some of the finest daffodil meadows are now managed by the Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust and the villages of Dymock, Kempley and Oxenhall hold annual Daffodil Weekends with guided walks and other activities. At Kempley there’s even a Daff-and-Ride bus service to bring the people to the plants. Thanks to its renewed popularity, the wild daffodil has been declared the county flower of Gloucestershire. There’s just one difference between modern times and the wild daffodil’s heyday in the mid-twentieth century: picking them is now illegal.
In Welsh the daffodil is called cenin pedr, ‘Peter’s Leek’, perhaps imagining that in heaven leeks (St Peter was the gatekeeper) would transform into golden trumpets. Legend has it that St David, the patron saint of Wales, once commanded his soldiers to identify themselves in a battle that took place in a leek field by wearing one of the plants attached to their helmets. It is still worn on 1 March, St David’s Day, but a daffodil, the national flower of Wales, was accepted as a substitute during the nineteenth century possibly because its upright bright green leaves have a slight look of the leaves of the leek, but more probably because it makes a more attractive, if still somewhat pungent, buttonhole: David Lloyd George, the only Welshman to become British Prime Minister, advanced its popularity even further by wearing one proudly in public on 1 March.
The wild daffodil with its circlet of pale primrose, enclosing a deep egg-yolk yellow trumpet is still common in Welsh woods and old pastures, but in the narrow and twisting lanes of west Wales lurks the botanical puzzle that some say may be the genuine Welsh emblem: the Tenby daffodil.
Brett stumbled on this rare flower by accident one wild March day, while travelling to see a very rare bird, a Pacific Diver from North America, which had turned up on a remote Pembrokeshire reservoir. Through a sleet-spattered windscreen, he saw a clump of small daffodils with bright yellow trumpet and tepals on a laneside bank. Thoughts of rare birds went by the board as he scrambled out for a closer look at this neat little flower, golden and beaded with raindrops.
It was sturdier and more compact than wild daffodils, with shorter rather rounded petals and a trumpet in perfect proportion. This plant has bemused botanists for generations since its first discovery in 1796 when it was said to be abundant around the Welsh harbour town of Tenby. Because it looked so different from the native wild daffodil, it became sought after by collectors and, as a result, by the end of the nineteenth century was already very rare; the coup de grâce came with the ploughing up of meadows between the wars.
So where had these laneside daffs come from and why is the plant so common again in and around Tenby itself? In Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey traces the resurgence of this enigmatic plant. In the 1970s an Essex boy on holiday in the area asked the local tourist office if he could buy some Tenby daffodils to take home to his aunt. No one knew where to lay hands on any, but the boy’s request sparked a search for bulbs in local nurseries. The Tenby daffodil took pride of place at the next Tenby in Bloom festival and went on to grab the municipal imagination of the town, where it was planted out on verges and traffic islands. A former rarity has now become part of the local identity, a botanical connection with town and nation. Many of the daffodils are popular in gardens from where they have re-invaded the wild, which may explain that laneside clump.
The Tenby daffodil was originally classified as Narcissus obvallaris, a daffodil unknown outside the British Isles. According to Mabey, it was said to have been brought by Phoenician traders, Flemish settlers or grown by monks, though there’s no evidence of any truth in this. Now it is considered a subspecies of the native wild daffodil, properly known as Narcissus pseudonarcissus ssp obvallaris though why it is so localised remains a mystery.
The fortunes of the Tenby daffodil have been ruined and made by horticulturalists, a sign that daffodils and other narcissi such as jonquils are big business. The humble wild plant has been crossed with European plants to produce around 27,000 hybrids and cultivars including white flowers, double blooms, pink trumpets and all shades of yellow and orange. Because our mild Atlantic climate suits daffodils, the British Isles are the largest producer in the world of cultivated daffodils, bringing in £45 million to the economy. We export around 10,000 tons of bulbs every year.
If you want to get your spring fix of cultivated narcissi early, go to the Isles of Scilly, where narcissus growing has been an industry for generations. The mild, almost frost-free climate allows the Scillonian bulb industry to steal a march on competitors and here you can see the yellow Soleil d’Or or Paper White narcissus in flower as early as October. The bulb industry burgeoned here in the late nineteenth century so that by 1889 the flowers were generating more than £10,000 per year for the island economy, the modern equivalent of several millions. In the last few decades, the Scilly bulb industry has been reduced by competition but they are still grown in some sheltered places.
Daffodils are grown for more than their flowers. The bulbs contain a compound called galanthamine which is also found in the bulbs of their close relatives the snowdrops. The drugs containing galanthamine are marketed as Reminyl, which can be used to treat the symptoms of early onset Alzheimer’s disease.
The most ubiquitous daffodil variety is King Alfred. First bred around 1890, its gaudy, flared trumpets appear each spring like vegetable Tannoys in gardens, parks and increasingly on road verges throughout the British Isles, where they are not always welcome. In April 2010 a spat unfolded in the Guardian when its leader suggested that we should welcome these bold blooms big enough to beautify our nondescript roadsides: ‘It takes all the vigorous vulgarity of February Gold or Cheerfulness to be seen over the strips of tyre and the fast-food debris that would overwhelm the more fastidious natives.’
Ecologist Andy Tasker responded robustly:
The problem of planting garden daffodils everywhere is twofold. On the one hand they take up space, growing so closely together once established that they exclude all other plants. On the other they give that unnatural suburban feel to our rural landscape, with their gaudy colours outshining our native primroses and cowslips. It’s like painting lipstick on the Mona Lisa.
Andy Byfield of the wild flower charity Plantlife agrees that there is a real danger of hybridisation with native daffodil populations which can lead to more robust, less ‘true’ wild plants. ‘Planting cultivars should not be a substitute for wild flowers on our road verges, which simply require more sensitive management. The worst-hit counties have lost one native flower every year, on average, throughout the twentieth century. In the past 150 years, twenty-one native flowering plants have completely disappeared from our islands.’
Back where we began in the lanes and orchards of north Gloucestershire, the native wild daffodil remains king. Even here, though, there are a few roadside plantings, no doubt well intentioned, of cultivated varieties. In the presence of the real thing, it looks like gilding the lily.
Man has always been aware of birds, and they still supply material and inspiration for recreational, intellectual, and scientific pursuits, as well as fresh eggs for breakfast.
Austin L. Rand, Ornithology: An Introduction (1974)