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Wednesday, 08 March 2006 00:00

A daffodil by any other name

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Around 8 a.m. last Sunday (Feb. 26), my wife and I backed out of the driveway and headed to Clyde’s restaurant so my daughter Izzy could have a pancake for breakfast. It was around 19 degrees. On the side of the driveway, in clumps, slender green fingers were clawing through the brownish-gray leaf litter. Daffodil leaves were reaching for the cold sunlight shining through the bare limbs of the trees.

I’m pretty sure they’re daffodils. I’m ambivalent about them so I don’t survey them closely when they bloom in the early spring. They are, after all, exotics. But what the heck, so am I and there is no doubt they add color to the early spring landscape. Enough to catch the eye of some noted poets — “I wander’d 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...” from “Daffodils” by William Wordsworth.

I don’t know about Appalachia, but where I grew up in Louisiana all those fragrant clumps of early spring color were called jonquils. Or maybe they were jonquils and these are daffodils. As best I can tell the way it breaks down is this.

Jonquils and daffodils are both in the genus Narcissus, in the family Amaryllidaceae. While it seems that daffodil is commonly used for any species of Narcissus, the fact is jonquils are different from daffodils. The species Narcissus jonquilla differs from other species in that it has round, rush-like leaves. It differs from what most gardeners refer to as daffodils in that it has two or more flowers per stalk. Daffodils have one. Paperwhites are another Narcissus – N. tazetta papyraceous.

The narcissi are native to Spain, Portugal, areas of France and Great Britain, Switzerland, Austria, Greece and Italy. They have been cultivated for ages. Today there are more than 25,000 varieties of narcissi.

Legend has it that Roman soldiers introduced jonquils to England. Queen Anne was said to be particularly enamored of jonquils. Her love for the fragrant blossoms led to the creation of the first public gardens in England — Kensington Palace Gardens.

Today, the daffodil is the emblem of Wales, and Prince Charles is said to receive one daffodil a day as rent for the unattended lands of Scilly.

Narcissus comes from the Greek word “narco” or “narke” which means numbness or stupor. According to Greek mythology, a young scientologist named Narcissus, caught a glimpse of himself in a stream. “It doesn’t get any better than this,” thought Tom, I mean Narcissus, and the lad couldn’t tear himself away. The gods knew it was over and they turned the lad into a flower.

The hardy bulbs made the trip across the big pond with the earliest settlers. They are common across this country in the most formal of gardens and the wildest backyards. They embody the pioneer spirit. When things are cold and hard, they cling tenaciously, and when fortunes and/or seasons change, they blossom in unabashed beauty and grace.

Spring is a great time to strap on your backpack and escape civilization. But when you’re on that backcountry trail don’t be surprised when the daffodil rises up to say — “others have been this way.”

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