Harbingers of spring are those little symbols that show that spring has sprung (or is at least around the corner).
Time has sprung forward, robins are out getting the early worm and blooms are starting to make their presence known in the garden.
Perhaps there is no other flower that is indicative of the start of spring as much as the daffodil. From golden yellow, white, to nearly orange, daffodils bring a sunny disposition to the beginning of spring.
I can remember the hillside at my grandparent’s house covered with daffodils that had been left to naturalize, or grow and spread wild.
These golden gems have been a favorite flower for generations. If you travel the back roads of West Virginia in the springtime, you’re likely to see daffodils planted in random, desolate places. They serve as a lasting testament to abandoned homesteads of a bygone era.
There was an old house way out in the woods, a shack really, where some elderly neighbors lived when I was a child. The lady who lived there was an avid gardener, as evidenced by the profusion of golden yellow blooms of daffodils this time of year. They still bloom there, even though the house has long since collapsed.
Daffodils (also called jonquils) are sometimes referred to by their genus name Narcissus and are members of the amaryllis family.
The name Narcissus may be familiar to those who know their Greek mythology. He is the hunter who falls in love with his reflection after rejecting the advances of the mountain nymph Echo (she can’t speak but only echo, after all). He fades away, unable to leave his new love (himself), and where he dies the Narcissus flower springs up.
A native of southwest Europe and Northern Africa, generations of breeding have resulted in lots of different flower shapes, sizes and colors. From tiny trumpet-like flowers to large double blooms, catalogs are full of an amazing variety of daffodils.
One of the reasons that daffodils are popular is their resistance to damage by wildlife. Not only do deer not eat them, but they are also impervious to being eaten by squirrels, voles and other rodents — unlike most other bulbs.
There are two very good reasons why they aren’t on the wild critter menu: they’re both painful to eat and poisonous. All tissues of the plant, from the bulb to the flower, contain calcium oxalate crystals. These are needle-sharp crystals that would cause burning pain, swelling and numbness to the mouths of any creature who dared to eat them.
How do I know? My high school biology teacher failed to mention that fact after he told the class that the bulb of the Jack-in-the-Pulpit plant was edible. He failed to mention that it needed to be cooked first to neutralize the crystals. It was too late — I had taken the bait and suffered some pain and numbness for a few hours afterward.
Aside from the oxalate crystals to cause pain, daffodils are also chock full of poisonous alkaloids. When people eat daffodils (usually mistaking them for onions), they usually only eat enough to give themselves severe stomach issues for a few days. A large dose could do more damage — one of the chemicals can halt cell division.
This combination of oxalate crystals and alkaloids can have other effects as well. People who pick daffodils for a spring bouquet can end up with a picker’s rash — a sort of contact dermatitis resulting from exposure to the plants.
But it’s not just the pickers who have to worry about a daffodil bouquet. Apparently putting the sunny flowers in a bouquet of other flowers will reduce the length of time the other flowers will remain fresh. It has to do with the alkaloids and sugars produced in the sap.
You don’t really have to worry about pets trying to feast upon the bulbs, as most animals steer clear. Just don’t mistake them for a tasty treat yourself and you should be fine.