Sandy’s Garden .. Narcissis Pseudonarcissus – Wild Daffodils

Sandy Simpson
Sandy Simpson

On April 15, 1802, William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy were returning to their home in Dove Cottage, Grasmere.

They passed the shore of Glencoyne Bay at Ullswater. There they admired a scene which the poet made world-famous in his poem, ‘The Daffodils,’ which every school pupil of my generation learned to recite. But instead of quoting from that famous poem, I shall offer these words from Dorothy’s journal: “I never saw daffodils so beautiful; they grew among the mossy stones about and about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness and the rest tossed and reeled and danced and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the lake, they looked so gay ever dancing ever changing.”

Yes, having admired some of the millions of daffodils which cheer up many urban roadsides, parks and public open spaces every spring, I appreciate her words of praise. Yet I think I have very possibly never seen daffodils exactly like those which so captivated the Wordsworths, for the daffodils with which I am familiar are members of the many cultivated species of that splendid plant. William and Dorothy almost certainly esteemed wild daffodils, which are more common in the Lake District in Cumbria than they are in Scotland, although the Scottish Wildlife Trust’s website advises me that they can be seen in their Falls of Clyde nature reserve near the historic village of New Lanark, so they do thrive in Scotland although they are not much in evidence. Indeed, wild daffodils are much less common than they used to be in England nowadays, having lost out in the popularity stakes to the cultivated varieties in parks, estates and gardens, and having been dropped by the many nurseries which once grew them for florists’ shops. They have also lost much of their preferred natural meadowland habitat by reason of changed agricultural practices; and over-harvesting of the bulbs by excessively enthusiastic gardeners has taken its toll as well.

Smaller than most of the garden varieties, the wild daffodil is … perhaps ‘was’ would be a more appropriate tense of the verb … known as the ‘Lent lily’ or ‘Easter lily’ because of its flowering season, although it is not, botanically, a lily at all; it is actually a member of the same plant family as the snowdrop. Its technical description defines it as a ‘bulbous herbaceous perennial with linear leaves and leafless stems bearing flowers, which may be solitary or in umbels, with 6 spreading perianth segments and a cup or trumpet-shaped corona.’ Translated into everyday English, it is a small trumpet daffodil about 350mm tall … say, a foot in old money … whose flowers have a fairly deep yellow centre with paler yellow petals, giving it an attractive two-tone appearance. The leaves are narrow and grey-green, like the leaves of, well, the cultivated daffodils with which we are all familiar. A hardy plant, as one would expect of any native of these islands, it is quite accommodating in its requirements, being happy in full sun or partial shade, content to be fully sheltered or protected only from the wildest, coldest winter winds and willing to grow in most moist, but well-drained, soils. Like almost all bulbs, wild daffodils do not thrive in boggy conditions.

Wild daffodils naturalise well. The bulbs can be bought from specialist nurseries and should be planted where they can carpet the ground in areas like orchards, the banks of burns or meadows; so they’re really for estates rather than urban gardens. Deer and rabbits shun them because they are poisonous, although they are susceptible to slugs, narcissus bulb fly and narcissus eelworm. Despite the ease with which they can be cultivated, I accept that my garden does not have a suitable area to display them; and so I must visit New Lanark soon.