When I was in England, I knew daffodils for always being the first flowers to emerge from under the snow. Planted in nice neat rows along fences and hedges, they were a welcome sight after a long cold winter- which was certainly very pretty as well, especially with frosted spiderwebs draped in the nooks and crannies of frozen fences and leaves sparkling in soft winter sunlight. But the palette of winter was always rather monotonous, and the bright yellows of daffodils certainly added a pop of colour. Of course, on the east coast of the United States, I eventually realised that crocuses rise even earlier than the daffodils do. Nonetheless, daffodils remain special for their heralding of spring- never mind that it also meant that classes would soon commence after the winter holidays.
Daffodils belong to, and in fact make up, the genus Narcissus. They’re native to the meadows and forests of southern Europe and North Africa, and have a characteristic shape, with six tepals (the outer part of the flower when it cannot be easily divided into sepals and petals), and a central cup or trumpet-shaped corona. This gives the graceful flower a rather elegant cup-and-saucer appearance.
The name ‘Narcissus’ in itself is most likely familiar to most. Rich and varied as Greek mythology is, the story of Narcissus, the beautiful youth who fell in love with his own reflection, is nonetheless one of the most well-known stories. (For the sake of the faint hearted, morbid details shall be kindly left out.) No one seems to be very sure whether the flower was named after the myth, vice versa, or neither.
Although most daffodils flower in the spring, some do so in the autumn. Humans certainly wouldn’t be leaving such beauty alone, and multiple cultivars have been bred, each with different characteristics. Flowers differ greatly in shape, size, number of layers, and colour, but do tend to be white, yellow, orange, or something similar. In fact, daffodils have their own colour code, which specifies the colours of their tepals and inner corona.
If you’re familiar with any folklore, you’d know that beautiful people were sometimes also equally evil. Now, the daffodil could kill you if it wanted to. All members of the Narcissus genus contain a chemical known as lycorine, a bitter-tasting alkaloid that inhibits protein synthesis in cells, and could cause vomiting, diarrhoea, and convulsions. The genus also contains 79 or more known norbelladine alkaloids, a class of poisonous chemical compounds. Together, when consumed, these can also cause neurological and cardiac problems such as trembling and paralysis. Not the most pleasant option, but they have nonetheless been used in suicide attempts. Unfortunately, a number of over-confident modern gatherers have mistaken the plant for leeks or onions, although the unpleasant taste usually deters people from consuming lethal amounts. Touching the plant can also cause dermatitis (itchy skin inflammation) in some individuals.
A number of medical applications have nonetheless been attributed to daffodils. For centuries, they have been used in folk medicine to cure a range of ailments, including cancer, dysentery, hysteria, wounds, and bruises. Many have studied the possible biological properties of the alkaloids found in daffodils, but the only one currently used in the clinic is galantamine, which activates receptors on neurons known as nicotinic acetylcholine receptors, and by virtue of thereby increasing neuronal activity, has been used in the treatment of Alzheimer’s Disease.
For a city built mostly with red brick, daffodils were certainly a nice contrast and found homes all over the school campus. Quite the pleasant companions really, provided we didn’t eat them.