I have a case of the yellow fever.** I want to shout, “The daffodils are here!” (Here in the grocery stores, anyway.)
I eagerly wait for their arrival, not only as a sign that spring is almost here, but because they are a rare winter indulgence. Inexpensive daffodils = cut flowers for the home, cut domestic flowers! At the new Trader Joe’s in Boulder, Colorado, they were practically giving them away this week—$1.29 for a bunch of 10! Visiting the city for my daughter Zora’s birthday, I bought both daughters, my mom, and myself bouquets. Interior designer Alexandra Stoddard advises: “Always add a touch of yellow to a room, even if it’s just a bowl of lemons. Yellow is the color of sunshine and it’s important to your psyche.” To me, a small vase of daffodils is a spot of happiness.
Because it’s daffodil-icious time, I thought I’d share Noel Kingbury’s book Daffodil: The Remarkable Story of the World’s Most Popular Spring Flower (Timber Press). I have to admit I felt out of my element once I started reading this encyclopedic book. While I grew up in Missouri where country roadsides and even fields were splashed with these golden beauties, it’s different in Colorado. Here, unless you have the means to supply a wasteful amount of water to your arid landscape, daffodils, the true perennials, signs of rebirth and longevity, are short-lived.
Still, I have dabbled with daffs. Once I planted a few dozen in the parkway (here we call it a hell-strip). They lasted a few years. I planted some adorable miniatures, ‘Minnow,’ and ‘Tête-à-tête,’ and ‘Hoop Petticoat’ in the front garden. They, too, along with some fragrant Tazettas that barely made it through the first winter, eventually expired in my Darwinian landscape.
How different it is across the pond! There, with the ample moisture, they grow everywhere and in abundance. The first thing I learned in Kingsbury’s book is that daffodils are beloved by the British. They are immortalized in poetry. The Irish even wanted them as their national flower (but the shamrock prevailed). Further, they are an “imperial” flower which means they originated in Great Britain and were brought to countries where people of British descent settled (like the U.S.). Kingsbury explains how they are also a true “cult” flower. This means those in the daffodil cult often grow only these flowers, and sometimes exhibit strange behavior surrounding this passion, such as secretiveness about their hobby and a certain clannishness.
I knew daffodils of a single variety were genetically identical (from one original bulb) but I didn’t realize the great diversity held within the seeds. Daffodils from different varieties readily cross-pollinate, and while many hybrid seedlings are sterile, some are not. That is why the genus Narcissus contains 27,000 cultivated varieties. Of these varieties there are 13 Divisions, or Classifications, which starts with Division One, Trumpet Daffodils. There are also Large-Cupped, Small-Cupped, Doubles, Triandus, Poeticus, Jonquil, Bulbocodium, Miniatures . . . and on it goes.
Kingsbury covers the divisions and many other aspects of daffodils in detail. By the time I read through the divisions I was over-stimulated by all the lovely photos by Jo Whitworth, and overwhelmed with information. This is a book that will be the Bible for the daffodil-obsessed, and that person is not me. Maybe one day, if I move to a different climate where daffodils can actually thrive, but for now the best I can do is promise them a stay of execution.
Even though we are not a match in the garden, I enjoyed this exceptional book. And I relished the history. One creepy-cool tidbit was that Tazetta (fragrant) daffodils were found in tombs in ancient Egypt. In fact, Kingsbury reveals that “. . . the greatest of the Pharaohs, Ramses II, was buried with daffodil bulbs placed on his eyes.”
When railroads came to Britain, and flowers could easily be shipped to city markets, wildflower daffodils turned to cash crop daffodils. First they were grown underneath fruit trees, providing a two-for-one opportunity, but soon they became their own product. From cheery flowers for hospitals patients to bouquets for Mothering Day (what Mother’s Day is called in Britain) cultivation got serious.
My favorite stories took place during World War II. All the land and facilities formerly used for flower production were shifted to food production only. Daffodil bulbs were dug up and thrown out, though due to their hardiness, many survived. They can still be found blooming under the hedges and in ditches along the rural roads where they were dumped. During this time it was against the law to personally transport any ornamental crop (which included having them found in your luggage!), so when two men were caught carrying 138 boxes containing flowers, including daffodils, they were arrested. They received prison terms of 6 and 12 months respectively. A public outcry ensued and some Scilly Isles growers sent daffodils to Prime Minister Winston Churchill. Churchill reportedly responded: “These people must be allowed to grow their flowers and send them to London, they cheer us up so much in these dark days.” The ban was lifted, but then growers had to deal with finding boxes to transport the flowers. One type of container they recycled were wax-coated cardboard boxes that had originally supplied meat to American soldiers. Often these boxes would be vile with the stench and scraps of rotting meat, but the flowers were shipped in them anyway and they sold well!
Besides the things I have told you about (and barely scratched the surface of) Kingsbury provides chapters on portraits of “breeders and conservers” in Europe and the U.S., daffodil cultivation (indoors and out), wild colonies and “hot spots,” heirlooms, and a lot more. Daffodil: The Remarkable Story of the World’s Most Popular Spring Flower is itself a remarkable work.
Maybe my most valuable takeaway was gratitude for the annual treat of cut flower daffodils. Through this book I was reminded that field flower harvesting is physically difficult, poorly-paid, and often takes place in cold, wet weather. Each daffodil bud must meet exacting specifications and be cut to a particular length, 11 inches. As if that wasn’t enough, the sap contains a toxin that can cause a nasty rash, so protective gloves must be worn. In Britain, most of the labor comes from seasonal eastern-European migrants. I am sure it’s a similar story here, but with our farm laborers from Mexico. It is good to think of them, and what they bring to us, as we enjoy these harbingers of spring.
* “Daffodil-irious” is a chapter in Henry Mitchell’s book The Essential Earthman.
**”Yellow fever” is apparently a cute British term for daffodil infatuation.