Sandy’s Garden ... You probably didn’t know this about daffodils

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I still remember my own surprise on being told the United Kingdom … and yes, this term does include Scotland in this context … is one of the world’s major producers of daffodils.

“That can’t be right!” was my own first impression. “Surely Holland is by far the most important source of daffodils, both as cut flowers and as bulbs.” But the assurance that I was given that the United Kingdom is, indeed, one of the world’s major producers of daffodils was reinforced recently when I came across a fascinating article by Meriel Jones, Jane Pulman and Trevor Walker in the February 2011 issue of Chemistry and Industry … I know it has taken me two years to catch up with the authors of the piece but, since Meriel Jones and Jane Pulman are plant scientists at the Institute of Integrative Biology, University of Liverpool, UK, and Trevor Walker is research director at Alzeim in Brecon, Wales, I am more than happy to accept that their writings are worth reading two years after they were published.

“The UK is the world’s largest producer of daffodil and narcissus cut flowers,” they write. “The business of growing daffodils adds around £23m/year to the country’s economy, while the UK also produces about half the world’s daffodil bulbs, with exports of 10,000 tons/year worth around £7m. There are about 4,200ha of commercial production, with maybe five times this area in gardens, parks and other landscaping uses.” I simply can’t imagine what 10 000 tons … and that’s 11 200 metric tonnes for younger readers … looks like; I think in terms of something of the order of 20 individual bulbs in a pack in a garden centre, or so-called ‘giant’10kg sacks of them. But 11 200 metric tonnes of daffodil bulbs being exported every year makes my imagination boggle.

Well, I did know that the United Kingdom is one of the world’s major producers of daffodils. But the article, which is entitled, “Drugs from Daffodils” held a major surprise for me. The shortest and simplest way for me to share this surprise is, again, to quote the authors’ own words. “Daffodils synthesise a wide range of isoquinoline alkaloids. The alkaloids are undoubtedly why eating all parts of daffodils can cause illness, with symptoms including vomiting, abdominal pain and diarrhoea in animals and people.” No, there’s no surprise there: but that paragraph leads on to this. “The best-studied Narcissus alkaloids are lycorine, narciclasine, galanthamine and pretazettine, which have several pharmacological activities, and extraction and purification are favoured because it is challenging to synthesise in large quantities compounds with high levels of stereoselectivity.” And the key word here is ‘galanthamine’, for, as the authors go on to explain, “Galanthamine, also called galantamine … is particularly interesting because it is approved by the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence in the UK as a treatment of early stage and moderate Alzheimer’s dementia. Alzheimer’s currently affects at least 600,000 people in the UK and as many as 35m people worldwide, and incidences will increase dramatically as average life expectancies increase.”

And no, I did not know that the daffodil was the subject of intensive research to ascertain whether it can become a major player in the treatment of Alzheimer’s dementia. But put together the fact that the United Kingdom produces about half the world’s daffodil bulbs … because our climate is ideal for them … with the possible pharmaceutical use of the bulbs in the treatment of Alzheimer’s dementia and the bright flowers of the daffodil might be neither its brightest characteristic in future years nor its most valuable to the UK and to us.

Sandy Simpson, Polmont Horticultural Society