Give me the real thing for the real spring
Hallelujah! That's the word. Definitely. Here we are at daffodil time again. Our own clumpy patch of these prolific and splendid little yellow trumpeters, 10 paces or so from the back door, is as bright and charming as it has ever been. Actually, I fancy it's better.Skip to next paragraph
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One spring is never exactly like another, though the fact that it returns so reliably and never disappoints is one of its great assets. These small generous flowers, with their contrast of lemon yellow and rich buttery yellow, are made luminous as they filter clarifying sunlight. They epitomize spring's arrival perfectly. Add to this their gray-green spear leaves - narrow and elegant - and the delightful way in which each flower head points in a slightly different direction from the others. Observe their combination of nodding self-effacement and unashamed self-declaration. I defy even the most cynical and world-weary to overlook them.
All sorts of plants, like daffodils, grow from bulbs, but spring-flowering bulbs are the most intrepid, determined, and, I think, rewarding ones. Bulbs display an astonishing capacity to survive, multiply, and show up with predictable aplomb when the world starts to warm up a bit. You can ignore and neglect them as much as you like while they lie dormant through summer, autumn, and winter, but up they push once more and graciously reassure us that continuance is a tremendously potent thing.
These daffodils of ours are the wild, native daffodils of ancient provenance, not those derivations hybridized in new variations every year - leggy things best adapted to be cut flowers but frequently grown as garden plants. Such man-manipulated daffodils - billions are planted by municipal authorities all over Britain - always look planted or even slightly unreal. These small wild ones, however, even when they are (like ours) in gardens, look very satisfyingly as though they have planted themselves.
The first time I was aware of these true wild daffodils was by a roadside in the southern English county of Sussex. My mother-in-law spotted them as we drove past, and we had to screech to a stop and investigate. She encouraged me to see how native plants are frequently more exciting and beautiful than their garden-shop equivalents.
These woodland daffodils (though they grow in open grassland, too) are known as Narcissus pseudonarcissus. They flourished everywhere on the leaf floor of this southern woodland; it was difficult to avoid stepping on them. I had never seen anything quite so enchanting, flower-wise, and this was partly because they belonged so decidedly to their habitat. They were clearly an integral part of the natural run and local context of things rather than part of the well- intentioned but sometimes vulgar efforts of gardeners who aim at the "bigger and better." They looked as if they'd grown uninterruptedly under the hazels, birches, and small oaks in this wood since heaven knows when.
Early compilers of herbals mention them as commonplace. And - a sure sign of their regional ubiquity - they have earned many folk names, like daffydilly, giggary, dillydaffs, gooseflop, hen and chickens, lenty cups, affrodil, and butter and eggs, to mention but a few collected in Geoffrey Grigson's "The Englishman's Flora." Best of all is "daffadowndilly" which found its way word-ticklingly into Edmund Spenser's poem "The Shepherd's Calendar" (1579): "Strew me the ground with daffadowndillies,/ And cowslips, and kingcups, and loved lilies."
Wild daffodils have sneaked into poetry no less inevitably than daisies, violets, and roses. Herrick, Milton, and Tennyson make them their own in various ways. Shakespeare's love of flowers surfaces often and in "The Winter's Tale" is his magical appreciation of wild daffodils "That come before the swallow dares, and take/ The winds of March with beauty."
William Wordsworth's poem that begins "I wandered lonely as a cloud" is, for good or ill, the daffodil poem that enters many schoolchildren's stock of quotable quotes and pops into mind routinely thereafter.
If you can peel off the cliché-skin this poem has grown and read it freshly, however, it remains a touching and authentic vision. Unfortunately, it is mostly referred to by no more than its opening lines. This was the case on TV a few weeks ago when an event hit the national news: a countrywide recitation by thousands of British schoolchildren, who chanted the poem as a performance for charity 200 years after it was composed.
This rhythmic chant had a primitive charm. But TV being TV, the coverage never got past the first four lines. Perhaps if full time had been allowed this (short) poem, more of its original astonishment would've percolated through our screens. And perhaps true wild daffodils - which still grow in the Lake District where William and his sister Dorothy first saw them - would pleasure a wider audience. It might even include the well-meaning municipal authorities who plant spring bulbs in the roadside banks in a worthy effort to make Britain beautiful.