XXIX The Lent Lily
from A Shropshire Lad (1896) by Alfred Edward Housman (1859–1936)
‘Tis spring; come out to ramble
The hilly brakes around,
For under thorn and bramble
About the hollow ground
The primroses are found.
And there’s the windflower chilly
With all the winds at play,
And there’s the Lenten lily
That has not long to stay
And dies on Easter day.
And since till girls go maying
You find the primrose still,
And find the windflower playing
With every wind at will,
But not the daffodil,
Bring baskets now, and sally
Upon the spring’s array,
And bear from hill and valley
The daffodil away
That dies on Easter day.
It’s the season of the Lent Lily Narcissus pseudonarcissus, more commonly know as the Daffodil.
Family: Amaryllidaceae (am-uh-ril-id-AY-see-ee)
Genus: Narcissus (nar-SIS-us)
Species: pseudonarcissus (soo-doh-nar-SIS-us)
The botanical name of the genus, Narcissus, is increasingly believed to be derived, not as has often been said, from the name of the classical youth who met with his death through vainly trying to embrace his image reflected in a clear stream, but from the Greek word narkao (to numb) referring to the narcotic properties of the plant. Pliny describes it as:
Narce narcissum dictum, non a fabuloso puero or ‘Named Narcissus from Narce, not from the fabulous boy.’
The previously popular English names Daffodowndilly, Daffodily or Affodily are believed to be a corruption of Asphodel whose flowers, it’s said, look vaguely (very vaguely to my eye!) similar to that of a daffodil.
Robert Herrick a 17th-century English lyric poet and cleric, best known for his book of poems, Hesperides alludes to the Daffodil as a portent of death, probably connecting the flower with the Asphodel and the habit of the ancient Greeks to plant that flower near tombs.
Socrates called Daffodils the ‘Chaplet of the infernal Gods’ because of its narcotic effects – an extract of the bulbs, when applied to open wounds, could produce for example staggering, numbness of the whole nervous system and ultimately paralysis.
The bulbs of the Daffodil, as well as every other part of the plant are powerfully emetic, even the flowers are considered slightly poisonous, and have been known to have produced dangerous effects upon children who have swallowed portions of them.
A case of poisoning by Daffodil bulbs, cooked by mistake in the place of leeks, was reported from Toulouse in 1923. The symptoms were acute abdominal pains and nausea, which yielded to an emetic.
Fact File: Narcissus pseudonarcissus is a bulbous perennial with upright, strap-like, grey-green leaves. The leaves arise from the base of the stem and are up to 35 cm long and 12 mm wide, with rounded tips. A single flower is produced at the tip of the flattened flower-stalk. The flower consists of a dark yellow ‘trumpet’ (corona) surrounded by a ring of 3 sepals and 3 petals (perianth), which are a lighter yellow. The flowers are up to 60 mm long and the ‘trumpet’ and ring of petals are roughly the same length. Flowers are usually produced from March to April. The daffodil is clump-forming, but reproduction is primarily via seed production.
In Britain native populations of Lent Lily have decreased substantially since the 19th century due to intensification of agriculture, clearance of woodlands and the uprooting of bulbs for use in gardens…
…and this has led to a number of event or Daffodil Fairs around the country to raise awareness of the fragility of native populations of daffodils and the celebrate their flowering
as heralding out the winter and welcoming in the spring. Sounds a reasonable excuse to dress up, paint your face and dance in the streets to me!