Book Review: “Daffodil: Biography of a Flower”

 

“I’m always pleased to see a daffodil” confesses Oxford University botanist Dr Robert Scotland to the author of this new account of the ubiquitous spring flower. With those seven words he speaks for a nation. Narcissi, daffadillys, Lent lilies, jonquils, haverdrils, julians, daffydowndillies, call them what you will, daffodils are much beloved flowers. Yet this has not always been so. The British considered daffodils little more than common weeds for centuries. When William Wordsworth wandered lonely as a cloud in 1802, both his host of dancing daffodils and his poetry were considered “an insult on the public taste”.

In her new book, Daffodil, Biography of a Flower, Helen O’Neill charts the long and colourful history of one of Britain’s favourite flowers. From its associations with death and disaster, to global symbol of hope and healing, Helen’s book is an enjoyable romp through 2300 golden years of the daffodil, written from a very personal perspective. Diagnosed with breast cancer, separated from her family in England by thousands of miles of land and water, it was the daffodil in various guises that gave Helen the strength to survive her ordeal.

 

A spread from the ancient Helmingham Herbal and Bestiary
A spread from the ancient Helmingham Herbal and Bestiary

 

A relatively complex flower, the daffodil’s story begins about 18 million years ago. Helen Picks up the thread in 300BC with Theophrastus. The journey takes us from ancient Greece and the Roman Empire to Spain, Portugal and Holland, ending firmly on English soil. No other race on earth has taken the daffodil to its heart quite like British, who have done so much to advance, understand, catalogue and cultivate its cheerful blooms.

Key protagonists in the mythology, discovery and popularisation of daffodils, from Narcissus himself to Cornish grower and hybridiser Ron Scamp, are colourfully portrayed. Helen alludes to a time when daffodil fanaticism almost reached the heights of tulipomania and orchidelirium, but in truth daffodil’s tale is a steadier and more richly textured one than either of those two flowers. The author offers us a wealth of information without dwelling for too long on any one aspect of the flower, demonstrating her skill as an editor as well as a writer. My only gripe would be that the book’s diverse illustrations and photographs are randomly positioned and uncaptioned. Just occasionally they do not feature daffodils at all: a photograph embedded in the chapter on Wordsworth depicts marsh marigolds, not daffodils, growing on a lake shore. Despite these minor hiccups, the book is beautifully produced and printed on paper as smooth, silky and startlingly white as the petals of Narcissus poeticus, the poet’s daffodil of old.

 

Narcissus poeticus var. recurvus, Saltwood Castle, 2013
Narcissus poeticus var. recurvus, the poet’s daffodil

 

Plant monographs run the risk of being boring and narrowly focussed, but not this one. The story of the daffodil is one of mythology, superstition, power, endurance, competition, science, healing and the pursuit of perfection. A perfect post-Christmas read, Daffodil, Biography of a Flower is guaranteed to get you in the mood for spring.

Daffodil, Biography of a Flower is published by Harper Collins on February 9th 2017, priced at £18.99.

Click here for more recommended reading.

 

Narcissus bulbocodium, Cape St Vincent, Portugal
Narcissus bulbocodium, Cape St Vincent, Portugal