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 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.
- 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.
- ‘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.
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