In the Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare wrote that the daffodil is the flower “That come before the swallow dares, and take the winds of March with beauty.” The yellow trumpeted daffodil is indeed the birthday flower of March, and thus one of the first flowers of spring. Also known as a jonquil, daffodil is the common name for all plants of the narcissus genus. As the symbol of hope, rebirth, unrequited love, respect and chivalry, its history from past to present sheds new light on this everyday feel-good flower.
The Narcissus classification of plants was named after the beautiful Greek youth Narcissus who, in order to keep his beauty, was ordered by the gods to never look at his reflection. Consumed with vanity, Narcissus broke the rules and stared at his reflection in a lake. His punishment was to be turned into a flower, and thus we have the term Narcissism. A legend pertaining to daffodils is that they should never be present at a wedding for fear of causing vanity to the bride.
The ancient Greeks, Romans and Egyptians all regarded the daffodil as the flower of death. Dried specimens were found on Egyptian mummies’ funeral wreaths dating to 1570 B.C. Romans mistakenly believed that the sap of the daffodil was a healing agent for flesh wounds, and brought it to Britain during the conquest. However, it was the daffodil bulb that held a sacred place among the Roman military. The March birth flower is poisonous if eaten. If a soldier suffered a mortal wound whether in battle or campaign, he was instructed to consume several poisonous daffodil bulbs, and thus experience a painless death. In the Middle East, however, this flower was widely used as an aphrodisiac
In medieval times, there was a legend that if you looked a daffodil and it drooped, it was an omen of death. In England the daffodil is known as the lent lily because it blooms during the holy season of Lent.
Between the Dark Ages and 16th Century, daffodils were relegated to the wild and fell into disuse. In the early seventeenth century English botanist John Parkinson culled it from the scrub and nurtured it in his garden. The results were the beginning of the English love affair with daffodils. Romantic poet William Wordsworth immortalized them in his classic poem “I wandered lonely as a cloud…. that floats on high o’er vale and hill, when all at once I saw a crowd, a host of golden daffodils.” Seventeenth Century poet Robert Herrick mourned the daffodil’s short life span in his poem “To Daffodils”: Fair daffodils, we weep to see you haste away so soon.”
The daffodil is the national flower of Wales, England’s next-door neighbors, because it blooms around March 1st, the feast day of St. David, the Welsh patron saint. It is worn by Welsh citizens on this day. It has been suggested that the word “daffodil” is a combination of Daffyd, the Welsh derivation of David, and “affodil, which is a variant of asphodel, another genus of plants.
Whether nodding their yellow faces in the balmy spring breeze or decorating a table, these glorious flowers are nature’s trumpets announcing the arrival of spring. Their natural history and folklore legends attest to their deep significance to humankind.