I typically tire of winter in mid-January and am miserable all through February, so making it to March feels like the last leg of a marathon. Even in the northerly parts of the country, where an April Fools Day snowstorm is common and the temps stay below 50 degrees, March stubbornly insists that life get out of bed and prepare for the new season. And thirty-one years ago, as the tree buds were swelling and the bulbs were poking their tender fingertips from the mud, I too came into this world! I appreciate the symbolism of my pre-spring birthday, and I try to observe the occasion by mirroring nature: preparing for new beginnings and another year of growth.
What better emblem for this time of year than my birth month flower, the Daffodil? Daffodil is a common name for flowers belonging to the Narcissus genus. It is typically one of the first blossoms in the northern garden, alongside crocuses and snowdrops. Narcissi grow natively in Western Europe and North Africa and are thought to have been first cultivated in gardens around 300BC by the Greek botanist Theophrastus. Romans later brought the bulbs to England and now they are the National Flower of Wales. Over 13,000 different cultivars currently exist and have been introduced all over the world.
In his Historia Plantarum, Theophrastus described what is thought to be the species Narcissus poeticus from Greek mythology. You are probably familiar with the tale of beautiful young Narcissus who spurned the love of a goddess, and so was made to fall for his own reflection, leading to his drowning in a pool of water. In his place on the bank sprouted the flowers that bear his name, nodding their beautiful heads down toward the water like their departed namesake. Because of this, the flowers are sometimes said to represent vanity and unrequited love.
Floriography - or the language of flowers - was once a common practice wherein emblematic meanings ascribed to flowers were used to send coded messages. It became something of a craze in Victorian England; many floral dictionaries were produced to help with decoding an arrangement’s secret meaning. Depending on where you look, Daffodils may symbolize “Regard,” “Chivalry,” “Esteem,” or even “Female ambition.” On the other hand, they could mean “Uncertainty” or “Deceit,” and receiving only one may imply “Misfortune.” Cultural associations vary as well, with daffodils symbolizing “Good fortune” in China and “Mirth and Joyousness” in Japan. Because they are frequently blooming around Easter, they have also become a Christian symbol of “Rebirth,” “New beginnings,” and “Hope.”
Regardless of what they may or may not symbolize, Narcissi are very interesting plants. They contain the poisonous compound lycorine as well as needle-like crystals called calcium oxalate. These can cause severe skin irritation and even death if ingested, which makes them very deer and rodent resistant. When cut, the fluid secreted by the stems will wilt other types of flowers in the same vase, so they should be kept separate. Despite their toxicity, narcissus has been utilized by folk remedies throughout the ages in antibacterial, antiviral, antifungal, antimalarial, and antitumor medicines. Recent scientific studies have confirmed that the plants do contain compounds that may be used to combat cancer, dementia, and other ailments.
Healing or poisonous, a token of joy or misfortune, I like daffodils for a simple reason: I get a kick out of planting the little brown bulbs in fall when most of the garden has been put to bed, then waking to their showy spring trumpets after a long, dreary winter. It’s like finding twenty dollars in the pocket of a jacket you haven’t worn for a season.