Narcissus (aka Daffodil)

The Harbinger of Spring

Common Name: Daffodil  – The origin of the word daffodil is obscure. The prevalent theory is that it is a corruption of asphodel (from the Greek asphodelos which has no etymology beyond the name of the flower), a wild flower native to Eurasia noted for its association with the underworld in Greek mythology. The addition of the letter “d” is attributed to the French use of “de” as in Charles de Gaulle to indicate origin. When this precedes a vowel, then the apostrophized  version is used, as in D’Artagnan, the fourth of Dumas’ Three Musketeers. Presumably daffodil started as “d’asphodel” and was gradually Anglicized.  

Scientific Name: Narcissus spp – The genus name is the common name for the flower outside the lingua franca influence of the nineteenth century British Empire where daffodil prevailed. Spp is an abbreviation for species when the subject at hand is all of the species within a genus. Narcissus is derived from the Greek narkissos which is a variant of narke, meaning numbness. This is attributed to the use of the plant for its narcotic properties, a word with the same narke etymology.

Potpourri: The daffodil or narcissus is one of the most well known, storied, and beloved flowers of the Mediterranean Basin. It is not considered a wild flower in North America because it was introduced from Europe, becoming naturalized over the ensuing centuries. It is just as much a native of the Americas as are European, Asian, and African Americans whose ancestors also came from abroad. It is nonetheless wrongfully shunned by wild flower aficionados as a horticultural imposter, meant for gardens but not nature. As if in spite, the flowers have spread far and wide from their initial inception by settlers during the diaspora inland from coastal colonies. Daffodils frequently are found in isolated forest tracts as vestige of antebellum homesteads long since abandoned, marking their location in perpetuity, a microcosm  of the comely Narcissus of Greek mythology.

The Oreads of Greek mythology were nymphal deities of forests and mountains, noted  for their charm and beauty in contrast to their bestial counterparts, the goat-bearded satyrs and horse-tailed centaurs. An Oread named Echo was an attendant of Hera,  chattering incessantly to distract her from curtailing the sexual exploits for her husband Zeus. In punishment, Hera rendered Echo mute except only to repeat the last syllable of a word spoken to her. Echo fell in love with a young Thespian (from Thespis, a Greek poet and allegedly the first actor)  named Narcissus who haughtily spurned her affections. In grief, she fled to a lonely cavern, where she perished, leaving only her voice as echo. Narcissus was punished by the gods for his hubris with an ironically appropriate curse … to fall hopelessly in love with his own image. While leaning over the reflecting surface of a mountain spring, he was so stricken that he could not tear himself away and expired, the flower there to sprout as his namesake. [1] In the words of Ovid:

Narcissus on the grassy verdure lies

But whilst within the crystal font he tries

To quench his thirst, he feels new thirst arise

For as his own bright image he surveyed

He fell in love with the fantastic shade

And o’er the fair resemblance hung unmoved

Nor knew, fair youth! It was himself he loved. [2]

It is generally thought that the myth of Narcissus gave rise the flower named narcissus; in all probability it was the other way around. The word narcissus has the same etymology as narcotic and was almost certainly first applied to the flower for its use as an herbal remedy. The name Narcissus was not all that unusual. The Roman emperor Claudius was an able administrator who ruled with distinction, winning the admiration and affection of the citizens of Rome. Following the practices of Caesar and Augustus, he appointed ex-slave freedmen to administrative positions. Narcissus was the most prominent as ab epistulis (meaning “for communications”), essentially secretary of state. He became the richest man in Rome with a net worth of 400 million sesterces ($60B) ill-gained through extortion and coercion. When Claudius’s fifth and final wife Agrippina gained control from her aging husband and convinced him to adopt Nero, her son from a previous marriage, as his heir apparent, the days of Narcissus were numbered. As codicil to the sordid tale, Agrippina did Clausius in with a poisonous mushroom―Nero as subsequent emperor concluded that “mushrooms must be the food of the gods, since by eating them Claudius had become divine.” [3] Narcissus was stripped of wealth and power and ended up in a (flowerless) dungeon.

Narcissus of reflecting pool fame has retained name recognition in the modern era as a term rooted in psychiatry. The classification of mental illnesses is a greater challenge than physical illnesses because there are essentially no quantitative measures. In almost every case, diagnosis must primarily be inferred qualitatively from what an afflicted patient says with some correlation to observed behaviors. The American Psychiatric Association (APA) first established “a statistical classification of institutionalized mental patients’ in 1844 to “improve communications about the types of patients.”  The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, generally abbreviated as DSM, was started after the Second World War and is now in its fifth edition to include everything from ADHD to Voyeurism Disorder (12% in males and 4% in females). Narcissistic Personality Disorder is defined as a “pervasive pattern of grandiosity, need for admiration, and lack of empathy.” Among its indications are exaggeration of achievements (inaugural crowd), fantasies of brilliance (stable genius), and a sense of entitlement (6 January 2020). [4] No flowers there either.

The beauty and tantalizing attraction of the floral narcissus was well established in Ancient Greece. The poet Theocritus wrote of the fair Europa who entered with her nymphs into a meadow to gather the sweet-smelling narcissus. There she spotted a gentle and majestic bull. As he graciously offered his back, she climbed on, festooning his horns with flowers. She was unwittingly abducted and carried across a vast sea. The rape of Europa by the taurine Zeus on this far-flung shore is the unlikely source of its name, the flowers must surely have been narcissi. A more telling mythological account of narcissus provides a direct association to its narcotic origins. Persephone was the daughter of (the undisguised) Zeus and Demeter, the goddess of the soil and the original “Earth Mother.” According to one version of the “abduction of Persephone,” she was lured to a field by the presence of striking yellow flowers created for that purpose by Hades, god of the underworld. Taking advantage of her floral distraction, Hades pounced, abducting her to his realm deep within the bowels of the earth to become his wife. The narcissus thus became both the flower of deceit and the flower of imminent death. The choice of narcissus as the flower of the goddess of the underworld was indicative of its widely known and potentially deadly toxic properties. [5] It is of equal note that asphodel, the flower that gave rise to the name of the daffodil, is also associated with the mythological underworld.

The medicinal properties of the bulbs of plants in the Amaryllis family to which the genus Narcissus belongs were well established in antiquity. The choice of medicinal as opposed to toxic is intentional, as many herbals used in treatments against disease are effective because they are toxic to some organisms or cells. Dosage for a specific application is critical, overdose often associated with demise. Hippocrates (460-370 BCE), the father of medicine and the alleged originator of the “first do no harm” oath as physician’s touchstone, used narcissus in his practice as a treatment for tumors. Narcissus as chemotherapy to eradicate cancerous cells was still in use four centuries later by Pedanius Dioscorides and included in De Materia Medica, the first pharmacopeia. [6] The physicians of the subsequent Roman Empire spread the use of narcissus throughout the Mediterranean Basin north to Gaul and Britain. Gaius Plinius Secundus, known as Pliny the Elder, extended the use of narcissus to the treatment of sixteen different conditions ranging from the original tumors to burns and “cure of contusions and blows inflicted by stone.” He further points out that narcissus is “injurious to the stomach and hence it is that it acts both as an emetic and as a purgative. It is prejudicial also to the sinews and produces dull, heavy pains in the head.” Because of this, Pliny asserts that “it has received its name from “narce” and not from the youth Narcissus, mentioned in fable.” [7]

The Dark Ages that followed Pax Romana were noted for religiosity absent the humanism of Greece. Petrarch’s perusal of Cicero’s letters launched the Italian Renaissance and the eventual rediscovery of medicine as science supplanting superstition. By the late sixteenth century, Greco-Roman treatments were dutifully transcribed into various publications and made widely available. John Gerard’s Herball attributes his information on narcissus to Galen, physician to several Roman emperors, as “having such wonderful qualities in drying that they consound and glew (sic) together very great wounds.” [8] It took another three centuries for the maturation of the scientific method to rescue the suffering population from bloodletting and quacks with magic potions. In the late nineteenth century, a smelly, yellow extraction named, appropriately enough, narcissine, was extracted from the flowers and an alkaloid named pseudo-narcissine was isolated from the bulbs. While narcissus extracts were noted for their use as emetics and narcotic in the treatment of a range of conditions including fever, diarrhea, and worms, it was considered to be, in large doses “an active and even dangerous article.” Several grains of the powder were enough to induce vomiting. [9]

Modern chemical and laboratory methods have revealed that plants from the Amaryllis family have over 300 alkaloids most of which are unique. One third of these compounds are found in the genus Narcissus. Alkaloids are amine (nitrogen containing) bases produced by many plants; many are toxic.  Due in part to the extensive history of the use of narcissus in the treatment of various diseases, which in some cases must certainly have been effective, there has been some academic and even pharmaceutical interest in characterizing them. About forty species of wild narcissus have been assayed, revealing that each species has a predominantly different group of related alkaloids. [10] Some clinical research has been conducted using modern methods and protocols to demonstrate that, in fact, Hippocrates was right. Lycorine, the very first compound extracted from narcissus in 1877, has been shown to be effective in the treatment of cancers, notably leukemia and melanoma. The largely surgical and chemotherapy cancer treatments of the past are increasingly being supplanted by plants. In the last three decades, a full 80 percent of all new cancer drugs have been derived from natural products. [11] This goes well beyond cancer. Narcissus extracts have been shown to be antiviral, antibacterial, antifungal, antimalarial, insecticidal,  emetic, antifertility, pheromone, and last but not least, plant growth inhibitors (to stifle competition). [12]

The alkaloid diversity of the genus Narcissus suggests that each species independently generates compounds that must in some way be related to habitat and physiology. The phenological growth of narcissus in early spring when there are few other food sources for the hungry animals that survived winter can only have been possible by being unpalatable. It certainly makes sense that plants that have struggled to survive for millennia must have done so through trial and error of random mutation and natural selection. The proliferation of amaryllids in general and narcissus in particular is indicative of a successful evolutionary path that has expanded their numbers in kind and in quantity. Daffodils are everywhere. There is a very good reason. They readily hybridize and reproduce, using both seeds and roots to expand radially from the epicenter of a single bulb. [13] The Royal Horticultural Society of Great Britain lists 162 cultivars, ranging from ‘Abigail Collette’ named for registrant’s granddaughter to ‘Zara’s Delight’ named for registrant’s daughter and including ‘Grumpy Penguin’ named for the characterization of the registrant in a video made by his grandson Jake. [14]

Narcissi cum daffodils are long-term survivors in nature’s combative arena. This is evident not only in their geographic reach outward from Iberia, but also in their persistence once established―they not only flourish but expand radially over time. This is in part due to the alkaloids that are repellent to bulb-digging mammals and gnawing insects. It is also due to extraordinary reproductive diversity. The color, shape, and scent of flowers has nothing to do with human perception.  Flowers rather function to attract mobile pollinators to transport male pollen from the stamens of one flower to the female pistil of another. The cross pollination that ensues is Darwin’s random mutation for choices by natural selection and why flowering angiosperm plants have been so successful. Narcissus is a master of floral diversity, having styles, the connecting tubes of the pistil that lead to the ovary, that vary both in length and in number, technically heterostylous polymorphism. There can be no doubt that these mutations were the result of different pollinators in different habitats having different behaviors. The overall design of narcissi is to attract long-tongued solitary bees. [15] And should the bees never arrive, there is a work around. The narcissus is self-pollinating, an adaptation that virtually guarantees fertilization from its own pollen, sacrificing diversity for survival.

Spread of Narcissus in Shenandoah National Park marking a homestead long abandoned.

The narcissus is a bulbous perennial that can also reproduce asexually. Starting in spring from a germinating seed, roots extend downward to form a small bulb where food reserves from the photosynthetic leaves are stored. At the end of the first year, the roots and stem detach, leaving only the bulb to overwinter. Bulb growth continues in the second year and the plant initiates production of calcium oxalate crystals called raphides which renders it unpalatable and therefore protected from ground dwelling animals. Bulb growth continues for the next several years as the narcissus has only leaves and no inflorescence. At full maturity which occurs between five and seven years, the bulb has enough stored energy to create the stalk and blossom for sexual reproduction. Full maturity also results in the formation of a lateral shoot that extends horizontally, eventually developing its own roots and breaking away as a separate, cloned bulb. This is the mechanism whereby one bulb and one flower become many bulbs and a garden of flowers over the years. To make sure that the bulb is at the correct depth in the soil for optimal growth potential, the roots that extend from the bulb are contractile, pulling it downward as needed. [15] So what could be better for a flower to festoon human habitations? The narcissus is almost indestructible, its golden flutes the harbingers of the renaissance of spring.

5 thoughts on “Narcissus (aka Daffodil)

  1. Thanks for the insightful article for Daffodils. You provided footnote numbers, but I down see the footnote references .


  2. Thank You for the insightful article on daffodils. You provided footnote numbers, but I don’t see references for the footnotes.


  3. Thank You for the insightful article on daffodils. You provided footnote numbers, but I don’t see references for the footnotes.


    1. Lynn – I realized just after I hit send that I forgot to add the references. They full article (with references) is on the HNB web site (first article on the home page and under the menu Flora and then Flowers. Thank you for pointing that out.


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