A history of daffodils
The snowdrops were blooming just after Christmas, the crocuses have been pushing up their fragile shades of gold and purple, even through recent light blankets of snow, and welcome hours of sunlight are putting the spring back in our steps. And indeed, today is that day the first one of spring.
And here comes the next player in spring’s extravaganza: the daffodil. This is probably my favorite of all flowers. There is no end to the tales and superstitions attributed to the daffodil, some with happy prospects and others rather grim.
Daffodils are believed to have been first brought to England by Roman soldiers who believed that their sap would heal wounds, while actually, sharp crystals in the flower’s sap further irritated the skin. The soldiers were correct, however, in judging the daffodil bulb’s poisonous and narcotic powers. Like the capsules of poison often carried by spies and undercover agents to ensure a hasty death rather than divulge their secrets when tortured, so the Roman soldiers carried daffodil bulbs. If mortally wounded, chowing down a few of the narcotic bulbs would bring about a pain-free demise.
While the daffodil’s proper botanical name is narcissus, back in the 1500’s the flower’s old name “affodyle” came into the English language and was thought to originate from the Old English affo dyle meaning “that which cometh early” — a definition to which we can relate.
The flower’s botanical name carries with it some shades of warning about being too vain of one’s appearance. According to the old legend, a youth was so taken with his handsome visage that he sat beside a pool of clear, quiet water studying his reflection. When he tried to touch his image, of course, the water rippled and frustrated him to the point of sitting there by the pond indefinitely. The gods realized that if left there, the young man would eventually die of hunger so they simply exerted a little of their powers and turned him into the flower that since carries his name – Narcissus
In Wales, the daffodil has more recently joined forces with the leek, that country’s national emblem, because while having the green stem and white bulb of the vegetable, it presents a better appearance and certainly a better smell when worn in the buttonhole to celebrate Wales’ St. David’s Day on March 1. The sprightly daffodil is now one of the royal badges for Wales.
Spring’s crocus, more dainty and fragile than the daffodil apparently came to England from France and from there migrated to North America with the early settlers who planted the tiny bulbs around their homes.
The modern word crocus derives from the Greek ‘krokos’, meaning saffron. The stamens of one crocus specie, the crocus sativa, provides the golden, orange-yellow dye once used to dye the royal robes of roman emperors and the flowers were often strewn in the emperors’ paths.
So enjoy the bright colors of spring’s first blooms along with the sunshine that brings them forth. For those of us old enough to remember, here’s the riddle of the day: the daffodil flower is reminiscent of what instrument of communication?
— Nancy Whelan’s column appears every second Thursday in The NEWS