Sandy’s Garden ... Narcissus Poeticus

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

“I am a member of the kingdom of the Plantae.”

“I am an angiosperm, one member of part of a group of organisms that consists of a common ancestor and all its lineal descendants, what one might call a single branch on the tree of life. I am a member of the order of the Asparagales. I belong to the Amaryllidaceae family, specifically to the Amaryllidoideae. I belong to the tribe of the Narcisseae. Who am I? I am daffodil.”

Gentle reader, you and I may call this flower ‘daffodil’: but the true horticulturalist calls it Narcissus, as do most garden centres. And we are all familiar with this lovely flower which, to quote Wikipedia, “has conspicuous flowers with six petal-like tepals surmounted by a cup- or trumpet-shaped corona. The flowers are generally white or yellow (orange or pink in garden varieties), with either uniform or contrasting coloured tepals or corona.”

Narcissi … the proper Latin plural form of Narcissus … have been around since time immemorial, although scientists reckon that the daffodil first appeared somewhere between 34 million and 23 million years ago in the Iberian peninsula and adjacent areas of southwest Europe which is still that part of the world where the greatest variety of daffodils is found. The origin of the name ‘daffodil’ is generally reckoned to be a corruption of the name ‘asphodel’… a member of the lily family with long slender leaves and flowers carried on a spike … with which it was often compared. The fact that the two flowers are markedly different well illustrates the wisdom of having a system of naming plants which does its best to eliminate any such confusion and explains why the name ‘narcissus’ is preferred by horticulturalists and by the horticultural trade.

Many people know the Greek legend of Narcissus as told by the poet Ovid in book 3 of his Metamorphoses, the story of how the handsome youth Narcissus was walking in the woods when Echo, a mountain nymph, caught sight of him and instantly fell in love. She began to follow him and Narcissus, becoming aware that he was being followed, called out, “Who’s there?” Echo repeated his words. Narcissus called out, “Who’s there?” several times, each question being repeated by Echo before she revealed herself and tried to embrace Narcissus, who spurned her advances and pushed her away. Heart-broken, Echo spent the rest of her life in solitary glens, eventually fading away until only an echo remained. However, Nemesis … the Greek god of retribution … learned of Echo’s story and punished Narcissus by luring him to a pool of still water. Narcissus saw his own reflection and, failing to realise it as simply a reflection of himself, fell in love with this, as he supposed, other youth. (Even Greek myths sometimes include what we tend to think of as contemporary events!). When Narcissus eventually realised his mistake he was heartbroken and committed suicide.

That account of the story of Narcissus, told by the poet Ovid, is the best-known of several generally similar versions of the legend. It explains the name Narcissus poeticus … the poet’s daffodil … for one of the oldest cultivated varieties of the flower. What remains unclear is whether the flower Narcissus was named after the youth in the story or whether the youth was named after the flower. The Roman poet Pliny the Elder, who lived very shortly after Ovid, wrote that the plant was named for its fragrance. Personally, I like the link between the Greek verb narkao ... to stupefy… and the name Narcissus, because of the plant’s narcotic properties. That explanation of the origin of the flower’s name fits in nicely with Narcissus’s silliness. Whatever, let’s just enjoy the daffodils while we have the chance.