It seemed like a harmless sort: a symbol of purity and hope, a cancer crusader and fundraiser, and beautiful harbinger of spring; but, if the truth be told, the daffodil has a dark and sinister side.
Many herbalists of yore thought the world of the daffodil, which is in the plant genus Narcissus and is known to some by that name. The daffodil’s healing powers were widely admired and recommended. One of this flower’s proponents, a healer named Culpepper, gave his opinion:
“Yellow daffodils are under the dominion of Mars, and the roots thereof are hot and dry in the third degree. The roots boiled and taken in posset drink . . . are used with good success at the appearance of approaching agues (fevers), especially the tertian ague, which is frequently caught in the springtime. A plaster made of the roots with parched barley meal dissolves hard swellings and inposthumes, being applied thereto; the juice mingled with honey, frankincense, wine, and myrrh, and dropped into the ears is good against the corrupt and running matter of the ears; the roots made hollow and boiled in oil help raw ribed heels; the juice of the root is good for the morphew and the discolouring of the skin.”
This flower was, not surprisingly, the basis for an ancient ointment called Narcissimum. Culpepper’s prescriptions should be taken with a grain of salt. More than a grain, actually: while some of the ancients’ ideas of remedies had merit, they were in this case prescribing very dangerous medicine.
Daffodils and their ilk (there are 70 species and 25,000 cultivars) are not a miracle cure, and can do more harm than good. These flowers contain the compound narcissine, which acts as an emetic, causing collapse and death by paralysis of the central nervous system. This toxin is noted for its ability to withstand cooking, its effectiveness in small amounts, and its quickly fatal results. Still, medical research has found that the flower contains compounds for healing discolored skin, slowing neurological degeneration, and treating malaria. Don’t take your chances, though; even the deer are smart enough to leave daffodils alone.
These flowers need little introduction — almost all of us know daffodils by sight. One variety, jonquils, were brought to this country and first planted by the American colonists. Well-known in Europe, they are called fleur de coucou in France and are the national flower of Wales.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention their connection to a certain self-centered boy. According to Ovid, the youth Narcissus is at the center of a mythological story of love, beauty, and rejection. Echo, a nymph, fell in love with the egotistical Narcissus (which appropriately means “self-admirer”), who rejected her advances. In despair, she spent her life pining away for Narcissus until her body melted away, leaving only a whispering voice. Thus, this myth provided an explanation for the disembodied voice that we call an echo.
Narcissus, oblivious to Echo’s fate, saw his reflection in the pond where he stopped to drink. Not wanting to ruin the beauty in the pool of water, he refused to disturb it by taking a drink, and eventually died there. An alternate version of the story has him falling in the pool and drowning, when he leaned over to kiss or embrace his own reflection. (“Narcissus so himself himself forsook, And died to kiss his shadow in the brook,” wrote Shakespeare.) A daffodil or narcissus grew up to mark his place of death. This myth also served as a convenient reminder to the Ancients as to where they were likely to find this showy flower — by the banks of a pond.
Artists and poets have been inspired by the narcissus. The mythological Narcissus is immortalized in a Leonardo Da Vinci painting, a just ending for such a self-absorbed character. William Wordsworth honored the flower in a poem by the same name, “And then my heart with pleasure fills, And dances with daffodils.” He continues his admiration and also “wandered lonely as a cloud, but was not alone when he “saw a crowd, a host of golden daffodils.”
With these famous poets and writers singing its praise, this flower has every reason to be a little bit in love with itself or as the name goes, narcissistic.
Suzan Bellincampi is director of the Felix Neck Wildlife Sanctuary in Edgartown.