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Windermere /Dilston/ Swan Bay Garden Club


A review of Helen O’Neill’s  magnificently illustrated book: ‘Daffodil: Biography of a Flower’ by Harper Collins Publishing (2016).

by Evelyn-Lily Tuba.

Daffodil is a visual feast as well as literally being an Encyclopedia on Daffodils. It’s well researched and beautifully illustrated. I highly recommend it not only to gardeners, but also to lovers of art, poetry and science as O’Neill shows just how this remarkable flower has touched all of these areas. It’s often said, ‘you had to be there’ but for those who were away in sun, hard at work, unwell or simply unable to join us for any other reason, I’ll attempt to recreate some of the day’s floral learning by outlining my Top 12 Daffodil facts as sourced from O’Neill’s book:
1. The botanical name of Daffodils, a group that includes jonquils, is Narcissus. Daffodils belong to the same botanic family as leeks, chives, onions, garlic and the snowdrop. Over 30,000 different cultivars have been bred however only a fraction remain & botanists now recognize 54 species plus naturally occurring hybrids. (O’Neill p13)
2. Daffodils originated on the Iberian Peninsula, an area that includes Portugal, Spain and France. (O’Neill p24)
3. The 1st daffodil appeared between 29 and 18 million years ago. So it’s an ancient flower and in 300BC, the Greek Botanist, Theophrastus listed various strains of daffodils in his 9 volume opus Enquiry into Plants (O’Neill p28).

4. Daffodils are/have been used as a form of currency. The Duchy of Cornwell is paid a peppercorn rent of a single daffodil each year by the Isles of Scilly Wildlife Trust. (O’Neill p16)

5. Tete a Tete, one of the popular miniature varieties is sterile. Each bulb is a clone of the original plant, derived from a cross, which occurred by accident and the identity of it’s parents remains unknown. (O’Neill p16)
6. Daffodil flowers, bulbs, stems and leaves are all toxic. For this reason, many ancient cultures feared daffodils. Bulbs were given to all Roman soldiers as standard issue to be used as suicide pills in the event of capture and a prevalent theory as to how daffodils 1st came to the UK is that they hitched a lift with Roman soldiers, escaped and grew feral, where they flourish until the present day. (O’Neill p28)

Ironically, one reason gardeners’ love daffodils so much is for their toxicity, as wildlife also instinctively know this (O’Neill pp164-166); which means, rural property owners like Jamie & I, can allow wallabys to free range at night and still enjoy flowers in the morning. Not all domesticated animals have the same instinct; cattle & dogs have died after eating daffodils. Typically, in humans, strong, healthy, adults will recover but only after an unpleasant bout of nausea and diarrhoea. (O’Neill p166) At this point, I wish pause, in case, dear reader, you’re become concerned re my and Ms O’Neill’s mutual adoration of this flower of its potent toxicity. Rest assured this article won’t end up like a plot from an episode of Midsummer Murders. So please, do read on about this incredible flower, which though noxious has equally significant power to heal. Yin & Yang, the ancient Chinese discovered some of it’s medicinal value long ago and as you will read, albeit a little later on, modern science has unearthed even more!

7. One man Peter Barr (1826-1909) created the modern daffodil. His vision was not only to sell bulbs but also for daffodils to be used as cut flowers. The UK now generates half of the world’s daffodil bulbs and is the world’s largest producer of cut daffodil flowers. (O’Neill pp85 & 162)
8. The world’s 1st Daffodil Conference was held in London in 1884. After which Peter Barr published and sold the 1st daffodils gardeners chronicle called ‘Ye Narcissus’ later renamed ‘Daffodyl Flowre’. (O’Neill pp82 & 84)
9. When handling cut daffodils florists/gardeners must be careful as exposure to sap may result in ‘picker’s rash’, a form of dermatitis caused by a combination of alkaloids and razor sharp calcium oxalate crystals. (O’Neill p166)  
10. Daffodils are lethal to most other flowers, a phenomenon called the ‘vase effect’. (O’Neill p166)   
11. Over the course of human history, healers have experimented with the notion that from poison comes cure and modern research shows that alkaloids from various daffodils show promise in inhibiting different cancers including ovarian cell growth, primary brain cancers, melanoma and drug resistant lung cancer cells. Such research is ongoing. Today however, the daffodil is perhaps best known as the emblem of the Cancer Council. It’s a symbol of hope and fund-raising power-house for cancer research. The 1st ‘Daffodil Day’ was held in Canada in 1957. The day raised C$1,200 and whilst no records are held as to the total funds raised since then, in 2013, 5.5 million fresh daffodils were sold generating over C$4.7 million. (O’Neill pp164-170)  Of all the facts I’ve learnt and the many more contained within the pages of ‘Daffodil’, I believe, that I’ve saved the best until last. For me at least, this fact, is gold and ‘seals the deal’ to make daffodils the ‘King’ of flowers.

12. In the last decade medical research has shown a naturally occurring alkaloid to be promising in slowing the onset of early stage Alzheimer’s disease, which is the most common cause of cognitive decline, affecting up to 44 million people at an estimated cost of US$605. To date, neither a cure nor preventative treatment has been found so this discovery is significant. The alkaloid was isolated from the snowdrop however drug companies struggled to find supply. In 2002, a British Professor found certain daffodils had the same alkaloid and speculated local farmers could grow daffodils medicinally. Despite a dramatic tale of funding hurdles and developmental challenges an English farmer has finessed methods of harvesting, extracting and storing a crop and anticipates sale of the 1st medicinal daffodil crop this year. (O’Neill p162-163) imagine, the positive future potential medical, not to mention, economic benefits to this Island State. Tasmania is already a major world supplier of pharmaceutical poppies; why not medicinal daffodils as well? Looking out our window now at our sea of daffodils, I turn to my beloved & say: ‘who knows perhaps old Geoff had foresight and planted us a gold mine? Fancy a career change? As winter draws to a close, enjoy your daffodils and if you don’t have any, why not go out and buy a bulb …or two.


Driveway Display

The Daffodils in Evelyn & Jamie's Garden at Swan Bay.

Photos from Garden Club August 2016