Spring is the season of supermarket daffodils. At a pound a bunch, you can deck out your home like Elton John and still have change from a fiver. From January until April, daffodils burst from village greens and quiet churchyards. The wild daffodil found across Britain is the Narcissus pseudonarcissus, known also as the ‘Lent lily’. Native to northern Europe, the hardy bulbs followed the British empire around the world and can now be found in Canada, New Zealand, Australia and the Falklands.
There are thought to be 27,000 different cultivars of daffodil bred from 36 different species. Most are yellow but there are white varieties and a few with splashes of pink. Generally the flowers are a trumpet-like corona encircled by petals. Any plant that falls into the Narcissus genus is commonly called a ‘daffodil’, a word originally associated with the Asphodel Meadows where the souls of dead ancient Greeks were said to wander around. The bulbs, which are poisonous, have been used in a variety of folk medicines, although which ailments they cured and which they made worse is anyone’s guess. In 2009, a class of primary school children in Suffolk fell ill when a daffodil bulb was mistaken for an onion. It had been added to soup during a cookery class.
The Chinese daffodil, known as the ‘sacred lily’, is grown to celebrate Chinese New Year, the white and gold of its petals symbolising wealth. In the Middle East, from where Silk Road traders brought the Chinese Narcissus, the flowers are associated with rebirth and often planted on graves. The Arabic poets spoke of daffodils as the eyes of the garden, and one Persian king ordered their removal from his palace for fear the flowers were watching him. The Egyptian pharaoh Ramses II was buried with two bulbs placed over his eyes.
Britain produces around half of the world’s commercially grown daffodils, with the bulk coming from Cornwall and Lincolnshire. A skilled picker can expect to earn upwards of £30 an hour. Many of the fastest harvesters avoid using gloves, which makes them susceptible to a condition colloquially known as ‘daff rash’. Daffodils are one of the few flowers that can survive without water once they’ve been cut, meaning they can be transported using the same cold-chain network used for food.
Although the flower is traditionally associated with Wales, it has only been so for about a century. One theory is that it originates from a linguistic confusion: leeks, the symbol of Saint David, are known in Welsh as cenhinen while the daffodil is called cenhinen Pedr. The flower is certainly easier to wear in a jacket lapel than a leek, something Britain’s first Welsh prime minister, David Lloyd George, was known to do on St David’s Day.
The daffodil has become something of a cult plant, and a small community of amateur horticulturists collect the rarest bulbs. There are rumours too of lost breeds. A 1930s painting belonging to one Cornish breeder includes a cultivar that no one has yet been able to conclusively identify, let alone discover. Perhaps one day a committed grower will be able to restore this long-lost daffodil to the garden of the living.