Narcissus

The daffodil is a member of the Amaryllis family and is one of the first blooms to emerge as spring approaches. Photo by Kenneth Boone

Have you ever taken a wintertime walk down a country road and found a clump of bright yellow daffodils out in the woods?

Chances are, you’ve come across an old home site with flowers originally planted by someone who wanted color to brighten up the grays and browns of the late-winter Alabama landscape.

Daffodil, Narcissus and Jonquil are all names used to describe the same group of beautiful, hardy, fragrant, spirit-lifting, early spring flowers that Southern Living Magazine has called “the essential Southern plant.”

The genus name of this plant is actually one of its common names: Narcissus. And if you stick to that nomenclature, you’ll be officially correct when speaking of this plant, no matter what the species or cultivar. That’s useful because there are dozens of species and zillions (not a real word, but you get the idea) of varieties.

Narcissus is a member of the Amaryllis family. All Narcissus are native to southern Europe and northern Africa, with a concentration in the Iberian Peninsula that includes the countries of Spain, Portugal, the Principality of Andorra and a small part of southern France. If you see one here, someone originally brought it across the Atlantic.

And you’ll see many here … and in many populated places in the world where it has been naturalized for centuries. History shows Narcissus growing in the Far East before 900 A.D.

The reason is because these Narcissus flowers are pleasing on many fronts:

  • They have a strong, pleasant, heady fragrance described as the smell of dark green leaves with hints of hyacinth and jasmine. This perfume can be almost overpowering, and it is sometimes described as “narcotic.” In fact, the word Narcissus is thought to have come from the Roman word “nacre,” which means, “to become numb.”
  • These flowers are bright and cheery when the rest of the world is not. Narcissus typically blooms in February around Lake Martin, long before the forest starts to green up. They are one of the first colorful blossoms to appear each year.
  • Narcissus is very hardy and very easy to grow. They can handle freezing cold winters; scorching hot summers; geography that varies from lowlands and riverbanks to rocky hillsides, forests and pastures; and full sun to partial shade.
  • Deer won’t touch them, which is another reason you’re likely to see them in our woods.

To plant a Narcissus bulb, dig a hole that is three to four times the depth of the bulb’s height; water generously and cover them up. Once planted, Narcissus blossoms will come back year after year and multiply, doubling in two or three years.

Although there are many different varieties of Narcissus, they all share a common structure. Most grow to be 1 to 1-1/2 feet tall with several long, narrow green or blue-green leaves and a single, hollow stem or “scape” that bears a single, or sometimes multiple blossoms. Narcissus flowers are usually yellow or white, though some varieties include green, orange, red and pink colors.

The flower is made up of a floral tube on the end of the scape, a ring of six tepals (which most folks would call petals) and a corona that emerges from the center of the tepals. Inside the corona are six stamens that produce pollen. These flowers typically face the sun wherever they are planted, though they may be upright or face down. Narcissus flowers are pollinated by bees, butterflies, moths and flies.

Scientists divide Narcissus species into 13 different groups based on their flower shapes. Gardeners and florists are more likely to recognize two basic types of Narcissus flowers: Daffodils and Jonquils. Daffodils, by far the most common, have single, large trumpet-shaped flowers and flat, strap-like leaves and a milder scent. Jonquils are more likely to have clusters of flowers and dark green, tube-shaped leaves and a strong scent. Paperwhites, a member of the Jonquil group, have smaller, white blossoms and are very highly scented.

Narcissus fruit forms after the blossoms fade to create a seed-filled capsule that opens as it dries, releasing the plant’s seeds.

Bulbs are covered with a brown skin and are oval shaped: rounded with small roots on the lower end and pointed on the upper.

Narcissus contain a toxic alkaloid called lycorine, and people have died from consuming the bulbs and leaves that they mistakenly thought were onions or leeks. Livestock and cats can also be harmed by eating these plants. And many gardeners know to wear gloves when planting Narcissus bulbs or handling cut flowers, so they don’t get “daffodil itch.”

While the primary use of this plant is for cheery flowers, Narcissus has been employed throughout the ages for a number of purposes, including treatments for tumors, as an ointment for painful joints and even as a cure for baldness in Arabia.

Today it is grown and refined to produce the drug galantamine, which is used to treat Alzheimer’s disease, as well as for fragrances in the perfume and essential oil industries.

In Greek mythology, Narcissus was a handsome hunter who loved everything beautiful. One day, while trying to drink from a pool of water he fell in love with his own reflection. Each time he bent down to kiss the reflected image, it disappeared. Even though he grew thirstier and thirstier, he refused to disturb the water and lose his reflection. He died of thirst beside the pool, and in his place grew a beautiful Narcissus flower with its charming face bowed down to the water.

If you use Narcissus in arrangements, it pays to be aware of the plant’s toxic sap, which can drastically shorten the blossom lives of other species of flowers. Condition the flowers by placing freshly cut stems in water for two or three hours. This will give the cuts time to heal over and the sap time to stop flowing. Then place the Narcissus flowers in arrangements without re-cutting the stems.

Some information for this story came from Southern Living, Psychology Today, Floret Flowers, Flora of Alabama and Wikipedia.