Wednesday 3 May 2017

Flowers From Hell

Daffodils are forever associated with Wordsworth and the Lake District, and his host of golden flowers dancing in the breeze. The impact of their large colourful trumpet flowers is heightened by the fact that they flower at a time when the rest of the landscape has lost very little of its winter drabness; even a single flower is easily spotted. So relatively few daffodils have a major effect on the landscape of the park, particularly in the area around the Visitor Centre and the childrens' playgrounds.

Close up of a group of daffodils with deep yellow trumpets
A Fanfare for Spring - 12 March 2017
Outside the Visitor Centre, a group of daffodils at their best
welcome the visitor.

From Hell to Life Preserver

These first flowers of spring are seen as a symbol of rebirth, but that has not always been the case – in ancient Greek mythology, Wordsworth's gleeful blooms were seen as flowers from hell. Pliny claims that daffodils grew on the banks of the underworld river Acheron to cheer the passing souls. In another myth, daffodils were white until Pluto dragged Persephone, the worman he loved, down into his underworld kingdom and turned the bunch of the flowers she was carrying yellow. Egyptians also included daffodils in funeral wreaths.

A cluster of daffodils around a tree trunk
Group of Daffodils - 12 March 2017
There are no great masses of daffodils in Milton Country Park
just groups of flowers in the grass or around the trees.
Almost all the daffodils are found within a couple of hundred yards of the visitor centre.

The daffodil fared little better under the Romans who introduced the flowers to England in the mistaken belief that their sap could help to heal wounds; in truth daffodil sap has entirely the opposite effect and acts as an irritant. More macabrely, Roman soldiers carried a bunch of daffodil bulbs around with them to be eaten if they were mortally wounded in battle. The bulbs are both narcotic and highly poisonous, so presumably the men thought that they would die peacefully and painlessly.

Over the ensuing centuries, daffodils have gathered a lot of folk lore, some good and some bad. I find it interesting to speculate on how these various beliefs started, and how they became established and spread. We are used to daily headlines telling us what to eat and what not to eat for a long and healthy life. And we know where these stories come from: scientists have studied the diets of thousands, if not millions of people, over many years; then analysed the results on powerful computers to come to their conclusions. Even then, the more sceptical of us wonder how they could isolate the effects of one food from a mass of diets, different life styles, different genetic susceptibilities, etc. Our predecessors had access to none of this.

Clumps of daffodils growing beneath silver birch trees
Naturalised Flowers - 12 March 2017
Clumps of daffodils naturalised below the birches beside the car park
Their bright yellow flowers dominate the otherwise drab scenery

Take for instance, the belief that to deliberately avoid trampling on daffodils is to bring good luck. Is this no more than a lord of the manor trying to preserve his view from his dining room window; a sort of 'keep off the grass' notice for an illiterate and superstitious population?

Or what about the stricture never to give a single daffodil, always give a bunch, because to bring a single daffodil into the house will bring bad luck? Is this just a way of saying don't be mean? 

A small clump of flowereing daffodils shine bright yellow among the trunks and leaf litter
Beneath the Trees - 6 March 2017
There are a number of small clumps of daffodils scattered throughout the park,
many beneath the trees, where their bright blossoms shine brightly
 among the brown leaf litter.

But good luck and bad luck are very general and fuzzy ideas, whose interpretation depends on how someone looks at life. Yet, some beliefs are quite specific: to bring daffodils into a house with poultry in it would stop the eggs hatching or the hens laying any more eggs. How did this come about? Did farmer Giles walk into his local pub one night, and tell everyone that his hens had stopped laying eggs ever since his wife brought those daffodils into the house? Did someone else vaguely recall that something similar had happened to old Martha in the next village? Then as the tale spread, did others remember similar incidents – naturally forgetting all the countless bunches of daffodils that had had no effect whatsoever on laying chickens? So a legend was born.

Close up of two daffodil flowers with more daffodils in the background
Sensory Garden - 12 March 2017
The golden trumpets of daffodils dominate the central bed in the Sensory Garden

Wordsworth, of course, reversed these bleak views of the daffodil with his famous celebration of the plant. Now, in the twenty first century, this flower once associated with death is now being used to improve life: since the late 1990's daffodils have been grown commercially for their galanthamine content, a substance which has been shown to slow down the progress of Alzheimer's disease.

Further Reading

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