The Wild Daffodil
“March brings breezes loud and shrill,
stirs the dancing daffodil.”
From The Months by Sara Coleridge
Wild daffodils or Lent lilies, Narcissus pseudonarcissus, are native to Western Europe, they can be found growing in woodland and grassland, colouring the March landscape with their grey-green leaves and nodding, brilliant yellow flowers. In many places in Britain they are still abundant. They are resilient plants, their bulbs surviving the high levels of nutrients commonly used in today’s meadows, unlike many other wild flowers. In the past they were so plentiful that labourers, gypsies and children would gather them to sell in the towns and villages. “It grows in such profusion in the meadows close to London that in the crowded quarter commonly called Cheapside in March the country women offer the blossoms in great abundance for sale, and all the taverns seem to be decked out with this flower.” (Botanist Charles de l’Ecluse. 1581).
The local profusion of daffodils in the past provided an early spring cash crop for farmers, their flowering coinciding perfectly with Mothering and Palm Sundays. Visitors would travel from the cities to see the ‘golden tides’ stretching in swathes across the countryside. The ‘Daffodil Special’ train ran from London to Gloucestershire bringing city dwellers to walk in the meadows, enjoy and buy the flowers. The ability to continue growing hay in fields and orchards the rest of the year may have helped the flower’s survival in some areas. Today many meadows have been lost to over collection of wild bulbs, the plough, arable farming and other changes in land management.
Wild daffodils are bulbous perennials. Their strappy leaves, with rounded tops, grow from the base of the erect stem or scape. The flowers resemble pale, dancing, yellow stars. The flower has two yellows. A long, dark yellow trumpet or corona surrounded by a ring of pale yellow, forward pointing petals and sepals forming the perianthe. This retreats towards the papery cover of the calyx. The bulbs form clumps but the main method of reproduction is by seed. All parts of the plant, but particularly the bulb, contain toxic alkaloids that can cause diarrhea, dizziness and convulsions, the leaves can poison livestock and the sap can irritate the skin. On occasion the bulbs have been mistaken for onions with catastrophic results. It is said that the Roman legionaries carried a daffodil bulb to kill themselves if threatened with torture or mortally wounded.
Was the Latin name ‘Narcissus’ taken from the myth of Narcissus and Echo, likening the nodding blooms to the bending Narcissus admiring, then falling in love with the beauty of his reflection in a woodland pool? Was the common name ‘Daffodil’ taken from the myth of the fields of ‘Asphodel’, a place in the underworld where souls, neither bad or good, spent eternity? There are places in Britain, meadows, banks and woodland, named for the wild daffodil. ‘Dilly Wood’, ‘Daffy Copse’, ‘Goldie Bank’, ‘Daffy Grove’, all seem to reference the delightful, yellow spring flower. Strong local, cultural relationships with this common, wild and beautiful spring flower, has lead to a renewed interest in its celebration. Daffodil walks, daffodil teas and daffodil ways exist in many of the places they remain cascading and rampaging in huge drifts across the landscape.
From The Daffodil Fields by John Masefield.
There are three fields where daffodils are found,
The grass is dotted blue-grey with their leaves;
Their nodding beauty shakes along the ground
Up to a fir-clump shutting out the eaves
Of an old farm where always the wind grieves
High in the fir boughs, moaning; people call
This farm The Roughs, but some call it Poor Maid’s
There, when the first green shoots of tender corn
Show on the plough; when first drift of white
Stars the black branches of the spiky thorn,
And afternoons are warm and evenings light,
The shivering daffodils do take delight,
Shaking beside the brook, and grass comes green,
And blue dog-violets come and glistening celandine.
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.
At noon they break their meats under the rick.
The smoke of all three farms lifts blue in air
As though man’s passionate mind had never suffered