Daffodil – Book review

Jean Vernon reviews Helen O’Neill’s iconic Daffodil book

An icon of spring, the daffodil is revered as a cut and garden flower, but there is so much more to this herald of spring than meets the eye

Daffodil Field Paintings
Daffodil fields on the Isles of Scilly - Empire Marketing Board From Daffodil by Helen O'Neill
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Hot off the press from Harper Collins, Helen O’Neill’s book Daffodil Biography of a Flower tracks not just the history of this enigmatic flower, but also the dramatic highs and lows of its journey through history. From superstition and myth, taking in politics, greed, religion, science, chance, redemption and love. But, appropriately enough for a flower that is now used on a worldwide basis to raise funds for cancer research, it is, above all, a story of hope.

Daffodil book
Daffodil – Biography of a flower by Helen O’Neill

Daffodil Biography of a Flower is a fascinating study of the once despised flowering bulb and beautifully illustrated with historical and modern artworks and photography.

“The English shunned it for centuries until an unlikely league of nineteenth-century obsessives re-engineered its future,” she writes. “Today the daffodil is arguably the world’s most powerful flower, and its tale is one of passion, influence, mythmaking and romance.”

“ This
 flower has implanted itself into virtually every cultural recess imaginable, from psychology and poetry to popular culture. Daffodils even featured in the cult television series Doctor W ho, thanks to the ‘Terror of the Autons’ storyline in which the Master deviously tried to destroy the entire human race using deadly yellow blooms created from living plastic.”

Like the Tulipomania that gripped Holland in the Dutch Golden Age of the 17th century, the daffodil has similarly been gripped with disease and drama, from a gold rush that saw prices rise to almost those of the tulips and then collapse again to almost complete demise from disease.

Daffodil facts

  • Like the daffodils, leeks, chives, onions, garlic, amaryllis, snowdrop and the Amazon lily also belong to the Amaryllidaceae family.
  • Over 30,000 different daffodil cultivars have been bred into existence by hybridisers. Just a small fraction of the flowers created survive to this day.

    Daffodil Field Paintings
    Daffodil fields on the Isles of Scilly – Empire Marketing Board
    From Daffodil by Helen O’Neill
  • ‘Tête-à-Tête’, one of the most popular and famous miniature varieties 
is sterile. Every bulb is a clone of the original plant, derived from a cross that occurred entirely by accident. The identity of its parents is unknown.
  • The daffodil has been used as a form of currency. The Duchy of Cornwall is paid a peppercorn rent of a single daffodil each year by the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust.

Cure and kill

As Helen O’Neill digs into the history of the daffodil it is clear that it has a long association with cancer. “Herbalists in the Middle Ages from China to North Africa narcissus oil in their attempts to combat it and earlier still in around 400 bC Hippocrates, the fabled physician of Ancient Greece, advocated combating ‘female tumours’ with narcissus flower ointment. Hippocrates, at least, may have been onto something.

Researchers have established that lycorine, the first alkaloid identified from
 Narcissus pseudonarcissus in 1877, shows promise in inhibiting ovarian cell cancer growth.” And other alkaloids isolated from narcissi species have been found to have action against other cancers too. And yet, as we should all know, daffodils are toxic.

“Daffodil toxicity is a serious business. This plant contains poisonous alkaloids in its leaves, stems, bulbs and seedpods, and dogs have died after eating it.”

There is also a strange phenomenon called the ‘Vase Effect’ where daffodils can be lethal to other flowers. Scientists have used narcissi, tulips and roses to study this and experiments putting ten cut stems of ‘Carlton’ daffodils in a vase with ten cut red roses. After four hours the rose flowers were visibly dying, their petals fading to a bluish red and their leaves deteriorating.”

Perfume and scent

The book is heavily enriched with information, facts and fascinating insights. A whole chapter is given over the scents and sensibilities of these exquisite flowers.

“Narcissus poeticus is an antique daffodil with an otherworldly beauty. It blooms late in spring, is believed by some to be the variety alluded to in ancient Greek legend, and displays a simple halo of pure white arching petals and a startlingly yellow scarlet-rimmed crown.

Narcissus poeticus and bee
A pollinating bee buzzes between Narcissus poeticus blooms.
From Helen O’Neill’s book Daffodil

The lure of Narcissus poeticus lies within the intense contrast between its flower’s seemingly innocent fragility and its unsettlingly erotic smell. One of the few
 Narcissus species used in fragrance creation, it is by far the most intriguing, and from it comes an essence that is distinctive, precious and rare. Narcissus poeticus is a major challenge. Its heady aroma is complex, a mélange of around 300 different chemical components, and the terms used to characterise it play with entangled ideas that are at once dark and light, delicious and disturbing, mysterious and animalistic, elusive and direct. Even the floral notes appear, at first glance, contradictory — meshing orange flowers, jasmine, violet and rose.”

Daffodil By Helen O’Neill is published by Harper Collins, £18.99

 

Jean Vernon

About Jean Vernon

Jean Vernon is a slightly quirky, bee friendly, alternative gardener. She doesn’t follow the rules and likes to push the boundaries a bit just to see what happens. She has a fascination for odd plants, especially edibles and a keen interest in growing for pollinators especially bees. She’s rather obsessed with the little buzzers. Telegraph Gardening Correspondent, mostly testing and trialing products and Editor-In-Chief for Richard Jackson’s Garden.
@TheGreenJeanie
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