There are few flowers as bright and joyous as daffodils. Perhaps our relationship with daffodils reflects their appearance in late winter and is coloured by promises of longer days and the warmth of spring. Long flower stems (botanically, peduncles), large, showy flowers comprised of bright petals (botanically, tepals) surmounted by a remarkable crown (botanically a corona, but a cup or a trumpet in daffodil parlance) ensure our attention.
The archetypal daffodil in cultivation is King Alfred – bred by John Kendall and registered with the Royal Horticultural Society in 1899 after his death. Kendall had revolutionised daffodil breeding with the first tetraploid daffodil producing half-metre high stems, 10cm wide flowers and a spectacular long, flaring trumpet crowning the petals. Prior to King Alfred, the daffodil was rather more subdued. Daffodils sold today as King Alfred generally aren’t – although the true variety can still be tracked down in heritage collections. The rise of the daffodil as a collector’s plant and a focus for plant breeders really begins in the late 19th century. So William Wordsworth’s famed Daffodils (originally, I wandered lonely as a cloud) observed in 1802 at Glencoyne Bay on Ullswater in the Lake District are Narcissus pseudonarcissus, native, or at least long naturalised, in Britain. The species that inspired Wordsworth is rather finer in stature and flower than the common cultivars in florists, greengrocers and gardens but is certainly their rival in beauty. To celebrate the 200th anniversary of the writing of Daffodils in 2004, the poem was read aloud by 150,000 British schoolchildren to promote poetry, and in support of Marie Curie Cancer Care. The poem has infiltrated the English-speaking world and school curricula worldwide. At least in Australia, daffodils are visible in temperate regions – Antiguan writer Jamaica Kincaid observes the trial of being forced to memorise a poem about daffodils, when none were to be found in the place she grew up. This gap between the lived colonial experience and the imported English literature is more general but has been referred to by Commonwealth post-colonial writers and critics as ‘the daffodil gap’. She now grows thousands of daffodils at her current home in Vermont and has some sympathy for Daffodils – “After all, it was not Wordsworth’s fault he was implicated in colonialism.” Our connection with daffodils is an enduring one. You will remember our review of Annette Giesecke’s The mythology of plants: botanical lore from Ancient Greece & Rome in this column a couple of years ago. Here, we touched on the wellknown story from Ovid’s Metamorphosis of Narcissus’s beauty, and of his disdain for his suitors including the nymph Echo. Nemesis’s retribution for his hubris saw Narcissus enchanted by his own reflection in a woodland pool. “But when he tried to slake his thirst another thirst grew: as he drank he was captivated by the handsome face he saw. Mistaking water for substance, he fed his desire with incorporeal hope … thus did Narcissus melt, wasted away through love and consumed by hidden fire.” At the end, “His body was nowhere. In its place they found a flower, white petals circling a saffron-yellow centre.” Both Narcissus and daffodils are found on wall paintings in Pompeii although Wilhelmina Jashemski observes, “Roman painters were notoriously careless (in their botanical illustration).” Linnaeus’s allusion in adopting Narcissus as the Latin generic name for daffodils is clear. While Linnaeus recognised six species of daffodils, botanists today argue for classi fications including around 60 to 80 – ranging from exquisite miniatures to jonquils (N. jonquilla) and hoop petticoat daffodils (N. bulbocodium) the centre of daffodil diversity is the Iberian peninsula of Europe with perhaps half of all species occurring there. Daffodils appear in literature as in our lives. Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, observes: Daffodils That come before the swallow dares, and take The winds of March with beauty. While it’s too late to plant daffodils this season, there are always opportunities to celebrate daffodils. There are some fine books including English horticulturist Noel Kingsbury’s Daffodil: The remarkable story of the world’s most popular spring flower (Timber Press, 2013) that explores the obsessive collectors and breeders who’ve made the modern daffodil (- no, not narcissicists!), and Australian writer Helen O’Neill’s Daffodil: Biography of a flower (Harper Collins, 2016) whose title illuminates her perspective. You can always visit Wordsworth’s daffodils through his poetry (or even visit the Lake District in April), you can support the Cancer Council’s annual Daffodil Day appeal (August 26), you can track down the garden openings promising spring bulbs through Open Gardens SA and you can visit the Royal Adelaide Show to see Hancock’s Daffodil’s display and discuss what you might grow in your garden or in containers. I’m a huge fan of Christine and Will Ashburner’s stewardship of a century of daffodil culture at Hancock’s Daffodils at Menzies Creek in the Dandenong Ranges (see daffodilbulbs.com.au to browse the 2016 catalogue online).