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A golden treasure

12 March 2008

Simon Parke

“SO WHAT will it be, madam? A Trumpet, Split Corona, King Alfred, or a Poeticus?”

Daffodils: they risk late frosts, and even snow, to announce winter done and spring eager. They allow the snowdrop its pure white glory, and after will come the wondrous bluebell sea. But between drop and bell, daffs make the land a swaying, blooming mass of lush yellow.

Wordsworth’s heart “dances with daffodils”; his heart was not alone.

It is not always idyllic and wonderful. A daffodil on the news today will probably herald a cancer story. It is the symbol of Marie Curie Cancer Care — who plant thousands of daffodil bulbs in Fields of Hope every year, and have a Field of Memories on their website, where a virtual daffodil bulb can be planted.

And it is not always British. The Daffodil Festival is 75 years old this year, and as American as the little house on the prairie. It started in Pierce County, Washington, in 1933, but daffodils had first arrived there in 1925. The fields of yellow flowers were such a fine sight that there used to be a “Bulb Sunday” when people came to admire. But it was killed by its own success: too many automobiles caused too much congestion; so “Bulb Sunday” died. The festival has blossomed, though, run by a group appropriately called “The Daffodilians”.

And it is not all sweetness and light. In fact, there is a bit of a battle in the daffodil world at present. On one side are the modernisers, who want to move on with the new hybrids and see the daffodil bigger and better; on the other, the “historics”, who defend the older varieties — not generally great beauties, but possessing the dogged virtue of age.

The historics look snootily at the modernisers; the modernisers look frustratedly at the historics. As Clay Higgins puts it: “Don’t get me wrong: I have great respect for some older varieties that were cornerstones in the development of the modern daffodil . . . but just because they are old doesn’t mean they are worthy.” Well, that’s telling the historics.

It is not always straightforward, either. The name “daffodil” is derived from the older “affodell”. The reason for the introduction of the initial “d” is not known, although a probable source is an etymological merging from the Dutch “de” as in “de affodell”.

But enough of such pedantry. A rose by any other name and all that; and if a daffodil sits on your table, or laughs in the wind as you walk in the park, then etymology will not be a pressing concern. It wasn’t for Wordsworth.

When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the  breeze. . .

Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

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