Nothing cheers my heart and soul quite like the simplicity of wild daffodils in full bloom. Their small flowers shine like beacons of hope that spring is here and the brighter, longer days have arrived. I am known at this time of year to be occasionally late and slightly distracted, for I am often winding my way through country lanes always on the hunt for these reclusive golden gems!
The Narcissus pseudonarcissus is our British native daffodil. With such common names as Lent Lily, Easter lily and Down Lily, describe not only its time of flowering but also its habit with its small delicate downcast heads. A true Lily it is not, but it is in the same family as a native snowdrop, Amaryllidaceae.
The flowers have a delicacy and a dance to them, it’s no wonder then that Wordsworth immortalised them in his famous poem, ‘I wondered lonely as a cloud that floats on high o’er vales and hills, 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.‘
They do tend to grow in ‘crowds’ (or clumps) really providing a profusion of blade like glaucous leaves, whereupon the glorious flowers rise with a butter yellow trumpet surrounded by the much softer primrose yellow perianth.
These plucky bulbs grow naturally in a loamy rich soil, that retains moisture and can be left undisturbed for years to come. So the native deciduous woodlands with their dappled shade, mature hedgerows and ancient meadowlands are the perfect habitat. Sadly over the years these have come under constant threat with woodlands being cleared for development, hedgerows grubbed out in favour of larger fields and meadows drained and ploughed for crops.
The once abundant sight of golden drifts of yellow has become less and less and can only be found in abundance in certain areas of the country, such as Farndale in North Yorkshire, Cumbria and Gloucestershire, with a few other exceptions. In Sussex we are still lucky enough to still find small pockets of gold especially near to mediaeval churches where little disturbance occurs.
The native bulb has been overlooked and probably been taken for granted. I can imagine a lot of people think they have been planted by the hand of man when they see them, in the same vain as we see their gaudy hybrid family members along roadside and roundabouts across the UK.
Gloucestershire proudly has the native daffodil as it’s county flower. From Victorian times the great Western Railway put on special trains from London in order for people to visit the villages of Dymock, Oxenhall and Kempley an area so yellow in springtime it was referred to as ‘The Golden Triangle’ . Local farmers would pick the flowers to sell and you could even pay a few pennies for the privilege of picking them yourselves for the return journey to the smoke! These provided an important cash crop to farmers and locals are like, but by the mid 19th century their decline had already started and by the 1970s were under serious threat. To pick these gems now or find you on the wrong side of the law!
Dymock inspired young poets before the First World War. They found inspiration in this rural idle often referring to the ‘Dymock daffodils’ in their poems. Young men such as Robert Frost, Edward Thomas, Wilfred Gibson and Rupert Brooke, all at a time before the devastation and ravages of war changed lives forever.
So if you find yourself taking a detour to glimpse of shaft of golden yellow, you may be lucky enough to find a small oasis harbouring these wondrous delights.
Bulbs of narcissus pseudonarcissus can be bought either in the green (with leaves and old flower heads on) or in bulb form in the autumn. The trick is to plant them straight away so they are as fresh as possible. They like the moisture retentive soil that won’t dry out during the growing period. The location can be either dappled shade or full sun. Make sure you let the foliage die down naturally and if in grass don’t be tempted to cut back the foliage after flowering, I’m afraid you also have to wait and go through that messy period until mid June.