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Daffodils: An inspiration for centuries

As the snowdrops fade, so another splendid spring flower takes centre stage – the daffodil.

Strongly associated with Easter and with Wales and Saint David’s Day (March 1), it is also known as the Lent Lily or Easter Lily.

Daffodils. Picture: Martin Walters
Daffodils. Picture: Martin Walters

Daffodils have inspired artists and poets for centuries; most famously in the 1804 poem by William Wordsworth, the first two verses of which I quote here:

I wandered lonely as a cloud

That floats on high o’er vales and hills,

When all at once I saw a crowd,

A host, of golden daffodils;

Beside the lake, beneath the trees,

Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine

And twinkle on the milky way,

They stretched in never-ending line

Along the margin of a bay:

Ten thousand saw I at a glance,

Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

His poem was inspired by a walk with his sister Dorothy in the Lake District. The place where they wandered is near Ullswater, as noted in this extract from Dorothy Wordsworth’s diary, dated 15th April 1802, when the flowers were clearly at their peak:

“When we were in the woods beyond Gowbarrow Park we saw a few daffodils close to the water side, we fancied that the lake had floated the seed ashore and that the little colony had so sprung up – But as we went along there were more and yet more and at last under the boughs of the trees, we saw that there was a long belt of them along the shore, about the breadth of a country turnpike road. I never saw daffodils so beautiful, they grew among the mossy stones…, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness and the rest tossed and reeled and danced and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the Lake, they looked so gay ever glancing ever changing.”

Here in the south, daffodils are already at their glorious best. Most of those in parks and gardens are not the wild species so admired by the Wordsworths, but are cultivated varieties, of which there are several thousand, mostly with larger flowers.

Our wild daffodil, Narcissus pseudonarcissus, is generally regarded as a true native, and this species also has a wide distribution across much of western Europe, from Portugal and Spain to Germany. In Britain it has decreased since the 19th century, but probably wild populations can still be seen for example in the Lake District and by the River Dove in Farndale, North Yorkshire, and scattered in woods, notably in Gloucestershire and east Wales.

Daffodils. Picture: Martin Walters (45177503)
Daffodils. Picture: Martin Walters (45177503)

Wild daffodils bear a single flower on each stem, with cream-coloured petals surrounding a yellow trumpet (corona). In south-west Wales there is a distinctive, rarer, form of the wild species known as the Tenby daffodil that has uniformly yellow flowers and may be introduced. To complicate matters further, the native species is also planted in gardens, and from there may escape into wilder sites.

Daffodils. Picture: Martin Walters (45177501)
Daffodils. Picture: Martin Walters (45177501)

Daffodils are grown for the cut flower trade and the UK is one of the main suppliers, mostly via supermarkets, in an industry worth millions of pounds and employing thousands of people. Most of these flowers are grown in the west, especially in Cornwall and Wales. They must be picked at just the right time, when the buds are ripening but before they open, and will last well in a vase as they open to reveal their full glory.

Daffodils. Picture: Martin Walters (45177509)
Daffodils. Picture: Martin Walters (45177509)

Daffodils also have medicinal properties. The leaves and stems contain calcium oxalate which gives them some protection from grazing animals and can produce ‘daffodil picker’s rash’. They also contain a range of other chemicals, some of which have shown pharmaceutical promise. One of these, galantamine, has potential in the treatment of early stage and moderate Alzheimer’s disease.

  • Martin Walters is a Cambridge-based writer and naturalist.

Visit Martin’s author page for more articles like these:

The majesty of trees at Cambridge University Botanic Garden

I had the itch to twitch when rare shrikes and flycatchers stopped by

Hobson’s heron and the tamer side of Cambridge’s wildlife

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