Throughout the ages, daffodils have thrilled gardeners and inspired artists and poets alike. The most famous example would have to be Wordsworth’s poem, ‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’. On my literature blog Spilling Ink, I spent the month of October (spring in Australia) memorising those lovely verses, an exercise that brought on a bout of xanthophilia, an intense fondness of all things yellow. It also led me down the garden path, thinking about daffodils and wanting to know more.
Daffodils are lovely, but do they inspire obsession? Yes, absolutely, and if you doubt me, read Daffodil: Biography of a Flower by Helen O’Neill, herself a daffodil fanatic. The book is a visual feast for anyone who loves yellow and/or is fond of the flowers. It’s full of mythology, history, art and literature related to the flower.
Helen’s personal history with the flower started as a child in England’s Hampshire. Her family lived in a home at one stage that in springtime boasted views of “acres of drifting daffodils.” With a mother who grows and shows the plant, she was exposed to not one common variety, but a host of them from linen-white to pale peach to rich shades of blood orange.
Now, there’s a thought that gives me a double dose of garden-envy… My experience of daffodils, though memorable and evocative, was stunted – limited to one variety in my mother’s garden and a few bunches in vases through the years. I have no doubt if I stumbled across a field of daffodils swaying in the breeze, I’d lie down among them, recite Wordsworth at the top of my lungs, and weep for joy.
In 2016 Helen’s book won her the prestigious Alex Buzo Shortlist Prize as a finalist for NIB: Waverley Library Award for Literature which celebrates excellence in research. She covers the plant’s cultural impact, history and development, notes on its classification and hybridisation, and lots of beautiful images, photos and artwork.
- The flower’s various names include the delightful ‘daffy-down-dilly’.
- Elements of the plants have been used both as an herbal medicine and a suicide pill.
- They are botanically related to Amaryllis and snowdrops as well as chives, onions and garlic.
- Daffodils have a sex life.
- Scientists have looked into the medical benefits derived from the plant to treat Alzheimer’s and some forms of cancer.
- Deer and other wildlife leave daffodils alone (while eating neighbouring flowering plants) because they are toxic.
- In 2012 some shoppers in the UK mistook pre-bloom cut daffodils for Chinese chives, added them to their stir-fry, and got quite ill.
- Commercial daffodil pickers can suffer a rash of dermatitis caused by the sap, which contains alkaloids and prickly oxalate crystals.
Narcissus Poeticus & Perfume
My favourite take away from this book is the introduction to the variety called Narcissus Poeticus, the Poet’s Daffodil, aka ‘Pheasant’s Eye’. Helen says: “(It) is an antique daffodil with an otherworldly beauty. It blooms late in spring … and displays a simple halo of pure white arching petals and a startling yellow scarlet-rimmed crown.” The intense, sheer white of the petals is almost like tissue paper. I love them! I want them!
Apparently, this gorgeous variety boasts an “unsettlingly erotic smell,” something which has perfumers scrambling to define and copy. The concentrated fragrance, ‘narcisse abolute,’ contains over 300 chemical components with floral notes of orange blossom, violet, rose and jasmine.
Why is this so compelling to me, a person who is hypersensitive to scents? Every time I read descriptions of perfumes, I yearn to experience them. I once spent a year trying to track down a scent I read about in a book.* (I found it in San Francisco and was rewarded with a thumping headache from overindulgence … )
Helen’s fascination with Poeticus inspired me. My mother adores white flowers, and I thought a few bulbs would make the perfect gift for her. She enjoys bulbs indoors through winter. Sadly, it appears Poeticus isn’t suited to indoor use (I couldn’t find a retailer), and I doubt they’d grow outdoors in the arid climate she lives in.
I give 4.5 stars to Helen O’Neill’s Daffodil: A Biography of a Flower. It would make a lovely gift to a gardener, an art lover, or a xanthophile.
Annie Spratt via Unsplash, CC-2.0
Stefanos KogKas via Unsplash, CC-2.0
Botanical drawing, Amédée Masclef [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons, PD