N is for Narcissus

Written by Kerry E.B. Black

A vain man named Narcissus mistreated an enamored young woman named Echo until she became no more than a haunting voice repeating his words, or so relates one version of the Greek myth. The gods grew angry and cursed the youth to fall in love with his own reflection. He spotted himself in a clear, deep pool and leapt into his reflected outstretched arms. The water accepted his embrace and pulled Narcissus to a watery death. (From this myth comes the name for the psychological disorder Narcissism.) Aphrodite, goddess of love and beauty, mourned the loss of the comely young man and transformed him into a proud flower sometimes called a jonquil, daffodil, daffadowndilly, or lent lily.

Ancient cultures cultivated narcissus flowers, whose name derives from the Greek for intoxicated (narcotic). Pliny pointed to the plant’s fragrance as the reason for its name. Theophrastus mentioned the flower in his writings dating somewhere around 300 BC. The poet Virgil wrote of the flower in his fifth Eclogue. Carl Linnaeus in his 1753 “Species Plantarum” described the flower which is a part of the Amaryllidaceae family. The prophet Mohammed enjoyed daffodils and wrote of them in the 6th century. Theophrastus, Dioscorides, and Pliny the Elder examined narcissus for its medicinal properties, and their writings influenced botanists and herbalists until the Renaissance. Matthias de l’Obel, Clusius, Albert Magnus, and William Turner wrote of the plant. Europeans planted narcissus with enthusiasm by the 16th century, and by the late 19th century, it became an important commercial crop for the Netherlands. According to legend, Sir Geoffrey de Fynderne brought the flower to England when he returned from the crusades, but historians believe the plant arrived with the Romans who believed sap from the plant possessed healing powers. (In fact, narcissus sap contains skin irritating crystals.)

Since it blooms early, narcissus symbolizes spring and rebirth. When the flowers, with their six petal-like tepals surrounding a trumpet-shaped corona or cup, open, many festivals around the world commence with gusto. Many people decorate loved ones’ graves with the plant.

Narcissi mean anything from egotism and death to chivalry, friendship, and prosperity. Given singly, a daffodil bloom brings misfortune, but presented in a bunch, and this birth flower for march, which also represents tenth wedding anniversaries, ensures happiness. It has associations with the Greek Underworld since it was the flower Persephone gathered when Hades abducted her. In William Shakespeare’s “Winter’s Tale,” daffodil is twice mentioned. “O Prosperpina, for the flowers now, that frightened thou let’st fall from Dis’s wagon! Daffodil, that come before the swallow dares, and take the winds of March with beauty.”

The plucky perennial inspires writers and poets. In “Personal Helicon,” Seaumus Heaney says, “…to stare, big-eyed Narcissus, into some spring is beneath all adult dignity.” J.K. Rowling names Draco Malfoy (Harry Potter’s nemesis in the series that bear’s his name) Narcissa Malfoy. William Wordsworth wrote “The Daffodils.” “I wandered lonely as a cloud that floats on high o’er vales and hills, when all at once I saw a crowd, a host of golden daffodils…” A.A. Milne of “Winnie the Pooh” fame wrote this: “She turned to the sunlight and shook her yellow head and whispered to her neighbor, ‘Winter is dead.’” Robert Herricks wrote “To Daffodils,” saying, “Fair daffodils, we weep to see you haste away so soon…”

Today, the over fifty species of narcissi come in a stunning array of sizes and colors. It naturalizes, and its bulbs live long, perhaps because their natural poison deters deer and squirrels from eating it. Some sources say eating two narcissus bulbs kills an average human. Wales adopted the daffodil as its national flower, and a folk belief there says people who spot the first daffodil of the season are blessed with good fortune for the year. In China, people force daffodil blooms for the New Year to ensure good luck. The cheerful yellow bloom serves as a symbol for cancer charities around the world. In March in Ireland, people wear the flower to support those afflicted with cancer.

Modern medicine produces galantamine from the daffodil which is used for the treatment of Alzheimer’s and Dementia. France and the Netherlands cultivate the Narcissus Poeticus and other varieties for essential oil.