Friday, March 26, 2021


 Daffodils are one of the most welcome signs of spring, bright yellow, big blooms, that usually (not always!) wait to bloom until after it really has stopped snowing for the season, unlike crocuses, which come out all eager and then get crushed by snow.


Daffodils were also a harbinger of spring in the Middle Ages.  They were especially associated with Easter.  Daffodils were not native to northern Europe, being it appears a Mediterranean-region flower originally, valued for medicinal purposes in ancient Greece and the Middle East.  But they did just fine in France and Britain.  They seem to have been brought to these regions originally by the Roman legions, which apparently treated the bulbs as a tasty treat.  Or at least that is what contemporary accounts report, although given that you're now supposed to call the poison control center if you eat one, maybe the ancient accounts just meant that they were supposed to be used for medicinal purposes.

They were not treated as a food by medieval people, however (who may have realized that something that tastes awful wasn't good for you), and the Roman-introduced daffodils spread only as wild flowers.  The daffodil is not among the herbs and vegetables that Charlemagne ordered planted in the gardens of all of his manors, though lilies and roses were.  Although the Romans never made much in the way of inroads into Wales, that region now celebrates the daffodil as its national flower.  The famous nineteenth-century poem of Wordsworth, where his worried mind was soothed by a sight of a field of blooming daffodils in England's Lake Country, celebrated wild daffodils.

The daffodil's official scientific name is narcissus,  which is what the Greeks called it.  The legend of the youth who ended up unable to move from the pond where he saw his reflection, because he was so enamored of his own beauty, names him Narcissus, for the flower, although the reason for the association is obscure.  The story was that he turned into a daffodil when he died, apparently starving because he couldn't bear to leave his reflection; I guess you had to be there  Extremely self-centered people are now classified as narcissists (with reference to the Greek legend), although that has nothing to do with daffodils.

For medieval people, daffodils were one of the wild flowers in the woods that indicated it was really spring.  Daffodils really only became a domestic plant, bred for size of the bloom and interesting colors, in the post medieval period, starting in the sixteenth century—Shakespeare mentions them.  As was also the case with tulips, the Netherlands became a major center for breeding and cultivating these flowers.  It is said that the English word daffodil came from a confusion in England with the asphodel, but this seems unlikely, given that the two plants don't look at all alike.

This is a picture of a daffodil.  It is not as asphodel.

© C. Dale Brittain 2021

For more on medieval food and herbs, see my new ebook, Positively Medieval: Life and Society in the Middle Ages.  Also available in paperback.

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