Thursday, March 01, 2007

Daffodils for St David's Day


Daffadowndilly has come to town
In a yellow petticoat and a green gown.

It’s March 1, and, as usual in Seattle, the daffodils are in bloom. For the past ten years, I can only recall one year when they weren’t blooming at this time. Lucky for me since I want to wear a daffodil today to show my allegiance to Wales (thanks to my ancestress, Nesta, the mother of the first Fitzgerald, who flourished around 1100).

The daffodil is the national flower of Wales which is why you should wear it on March 1, the feast day of St. David, the patron saint of Wales. Or you can eat a leek on this day and become an honorary Welshman (Cymru as the Welsh would say it). I try to do both.

The David Morgan site in its entry for St David’s Day
implies that the daffodil was imposed as a symbol of Wales by the English who wanted to downplay the political implications of the leek (worn by wild Welshmen in battle with the Saxons). Julie Ardery’s article at the wonderful Human Flower Project web site
mentions David Lloyd George, the Prime Minister of Britain during World War I, as the person who popularized this custom but he was Welsh himself so it seems more likely he was bringing to the forefront an authentic Welsh custom. The creators of the French Revolutionary calendar must have known of the association of the daffodil with St David’s Day back in 1792 when they designed the calendar and assigned the “narcisse” to this day (the 11th day of Ventose, or Windy).

Daffodil is a common name for a narcissus. It may be derived from the plant name asphodel, known to the Romans. Pliny wrote that it grew on the banks of the Acheron, delighting the spirits of the dead. The Romans planted it on tombs, perhaps because it was said to grow in the Elysian Fields. It was the sight of a daffodil that lured Persephone into the Underworld.

Perhaps it is the way they droop that evokes death. It also gave rise to the myth of the beautiful boy, Narcissus, who fell in love with his own reflection. I will let my favorite garden writer, Paghat, tell you all about the Narcissus myth and the secret rites of Echo practiced during the Eleusinian mysteries

The narcissus common in Greece, Narcissus tazetta, is called Little Tear Drops. In Germany, daffodils are called Osterglocken, Easter bells. They are also called Lent Lilies in England. They are favorite decorations for Easter tables, for Nawruz (Persian new year) celebrations and for Chinese New Year.

Gabi Grieve of the World Kigo database
mentions a new holiday in Ireland, Daffodil Day, March 24 which is sponsored by the Irish Cancer Society. Resonating as it does with connotations of both death and hope, the daffodil is used as a symbol by cancer societies around the world.

All daffodils have a central trumpet-shaped corona surrounded by a ring of petals. The traditional color is yellow but hybridizers have bred all sorts of fanciful variations, including daffodils with multiple layers of petals or frilled petals and daffodils with contrasting coronas and petals, or elongated or compressed coronas.

Daffodils come from the Mediterranean but there is one particular daffodil, Narcissus obvallaris, which grows only in a small area around Tenby in Wales. The Narcissus pseudonarcissus is also native to Wales. Julie Ardery writes about the way the winter daffodils bloom in January at Quarrelton in Wales, possibly due to the fires still smoldering beneath the surface in the abandoned tunnels of the mines there:
She also describes how Welsh scientists are cultivating daffodils because they contain galanthamine, which is used in the treatment of Alzheimers.

However don’t try this at home. Daffodil bulbs are poisonous. Mrs. Grieve says they are a powerful emetic. Even the flowers are slightly poisonous. However, both bulbs and petals have been used medicinally. The Arabs used an oil of daffodil to cure baldness and as an aphrodisiac.

The oil of Narcissus jonquilla and Narcissus Campernella are used to make a sweet-smelling oil used in perfumes, but Mrs. Grieve warns against being in a closed room as the Narcissus poeticus, or Poet’s Narcissus, as the scent of these daffodils has been known to cause headache and vomiting.

The daffodil is also called the goose leek. In the Isle of Man it is considered unlucky to bring them into the house until the goslings are hatched. In Maine, they say that if you point at a daffodil it will not bloom. And in Wales, if you find the first bloom of the season, you will have more gold than silver this year.

May you find the first bloom of the season.

Wikipedia article:
Mrs. Grieve’s Modern Herbal:
Leach, Maria, editor, Funk & Wagnall’s Dictionary of Folklore, Mythology and Legend, Harper & Row 1972


Olympia said...

Wonderful post--thank you!

This is the first spring in four years that I won't be walking to classes on my college campus. The hilly areas always bloom brightly with daffodils, telling students that they'll soon be able to sit out on the lawn to study and play frisbee in the warm spring air.

(I graduated last May and I miss my campus quite a lot, as I'm sure you can tell.)

It's rainy here in Georgia today, but maybe tomorrow I'll drive down to school and take a walk to see the daffodils.

Thanks again for the inspiration.

KerrdeLune said...

Waverly, I haven't had time to visit for a while, but it is delightful to be here again, and these words and images of spring are lovely on such a snowy day as this!