Daffodil flower close up

Narcissus is a genus of bulbous perennials in the Amaryllis family. They are in the  main hardy and most flower in the spring. There are various common names used to describe all or some of the genus – daffodil, narcissus, and jonquil. Narcissus are native to meadows and woods in Europe, North Africa and West Asia, centred in the Western Mediterranean.

There is disagreement about the number of distinct species (these range from 26 to more than 60 depending on who you ask) – as some are very similar and others have hybridised. All Narcissus cultivars are split into 13 divisions (using a combination of flower form and genetic background). New cultivars are registered by name and color with the Royal Horticultural Society, which is the international registration authority for the genus.

More than 27,000 names were registered as of 2008!

Narcissus flowers

Narcissus flowers

The name “daffodil” is derived from an earlier word  “affodell”, a variant of Asphodel (another group of Mediterranean plants). The reason for the addition of the  initial “d” is not known, although it could be a ‘slip of the dutch tongue’ – the merging of the main word with the Dutch article “de”, as in “De affodil”. Playful synonyms  “Daffadown Dilly”, “daffadown dilly”, and “daffydowndilly” appeared as early as the 16th century. Everyday use of the term Daffodil tends to refer to the wild daffodil (N. pseudonarcissus).

The name Narcissus comes from the same latin word, which in turn is based on an ancient greek word – but its meaning is unknown. It could be a word loaned from another language. The most common explanation is based on the Greek myth of Narcissus, a Thespian hunter renowned for his beauty. He became so obsessed with his own reflection in a pool of water that as he knelt and gazed into it, he fell into the water and drowned. Some variations of the myth say that he died of starvation and thirst. In both versions the Narcissus plant sprang from his remains. However, this is by no means a certain derivation and it could be the that the hunter’s name was derived from the flower rather than the other way round!

Another explanation for the name comes from Pliny who stated that the plant was named because of its narcotic properties (the greek word means ‘to grow numb’). There’s no evidence to support this idea and it seems to have fallen out of favour. However,  all Narcissus species do contain the poison lycorine (mostly in the bulb but also in the leaves). The bulbs can often be confused with onions, thereby leading to incidents of accidental poisoning.

On 1 May 2009 a number of schoolchildren fell ill at Gorseland Primary School in Martlesham Heath, Suffolk, England, after a daffodil bulb was added to soup during a cookery class.

Another problem is what florists call, “daffodil itch” – a skin problem often found on the hands after contact with the plant’s sap. Some cultivars seem more likely to cause this kind of dermatitis; eg  ‘Actaea’, ‘Camparelle’, ‘Gloriosa’, ‘Grande Monarque’, ‘Ornatus’, ‘Princeps’ and ‘Scilly White’.

Narcissus geranium

Narcissus geranium

The Narcissus is used quite widely as a symbol:

  • of unrequited love (after the Narcissus myth)
  • of vanity (the West)
  • of wealth and good fortune (the East).
  • of the new year (Kurdish and Chinese cultures).
  • of beautiful eyes (Persian culture)
  • of the nation (Wales – where the daffodil is known as ‘Peter’s Leek’)
  • of Easter (the German for daffodil is Osterglocke or ‘Easter Bell’)
Cornwall daffodils- traditionally the place (along with the Scilly Isles and Channel Islands) where early supplies of cut flowers are sent out to the rest of Britain.

Cornwall Daffodils- traditionally the place (along with the Scilly Isles and Channel Islands) where early supplies of cut flowers are sent out to the rest of Britain.

Some of the species names are:

N. bulbocodium = probably greek for ‘bulb’ (bolbos) and ‘a little fleece’ (kodion) – referring to the covering of the bulb – the ‘Hoop Petticoat Daffodil’

N. cyclamineus = like a Cyclamen flower

N. incomparabilis = incomparable

N. jonquilla = probably from ‘juncus’ (a rush) – the leaves being rush-like. The ‘Jonquil’

N. juncifolia = like Jonquil, rush – leaved!

N. major = larger

N. maximus = largest

N. minor = smaller

N. odorus = sweet-scented

N. poeticus = poet’s – the ‘Poets’ Narcissus’

N. pseudonarcissus = the false Narcissus. The ‘English Daffodil’

N. tazetta = an old name for the ‘Polyanthus Narcissus’

N. triandrus = having three stamens

Daffodil growing tips

Daffodil growing tips

Both species and hybrids are used extensively in gardens and grounds, looking good planted in borders or in naturalized drifts at the base of deciduous trees. Propagation is mainly from bulbs which are very easy to grow. They require little maintenance, but with some minimum care they can be more vigorous and floriferous, and they’ll multiply much more quickly, improving the show they provide each year. (see ‘Ten tips for looking after Daffodils’ above). Narcissus grows almost anywhere, although it does prefer well-drained soils with a sunny or light shade environment. The Narcissus species types are more specific in their requirements.

Naturalised Daffodils

Naturalised Daffodils

Source and further information:

Wikipedia

Growing Narcissus

Kew Gardens- Narcissus pseudonarcissus

Daffodil classification

Old School Gardener

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