Daffodil

(Narcissus pseudo-narcissus) "Daffodils that come before the swallow dares, and takes the winds of March with beauty ..." (Shakespeare. The winter's tale 4, iii). Indeed they do - the church has appropriated it to the Feast of St Perpetua, which falls on 7 March (Geldart). Wild daffodils are out that early in damp woods and meadows. In some parts of Britain, Hampshire, for example, it was generally said that wild daffodils indicated the site of a monastery (Boase). Don't point at a daffodil, though - that would stop it from blooming, so they used to say in Maine (Bergen. 1899).

The longer names given to them, like Daff-a-down-dilly, seem to be reserved for children's rhymes:

Daff a down dilly has now come to town

In a yellow petticoat and a green gown (Gutch.

There is a longer one that has been recorded in Hertfordshire:

Daff-a-down-dilly

Has now come to town,

In a yellow petticoat

And a green gown.

Daff-a-down-dilly

That grows in the dell,

My father's a tinker,

My mother can tell.

My sister's a lady,

And wears a gold ring.

My brother's a drummer

And drums for the King. (Jones-Baker. 1974).

And there is a much shorter version from Gloucestershire:

Daff-a-down-dilly that grows by the well, My mother's a lady, my father can tell (Northall).

Surprisingly, daffodils are not universally the good omen one would expect. Granted, the first daffodil is a lucky one. If you find that, then you will have "more gold than silver" that year (Trevelyan). But one has to be careful about the direction in which the trumpets are pointing. See Herrick's Hesperides:

When a Daffodil I see Hanging down her head t'wards me, Guess what I may what I must be; First, I shall decline my head; Secondly, I shall be dead; Lastly, safely buried.

In other words, if you see a daffodil with its head bending towards you, it is a sign that you are about to die (Addy. 1895). Dreaming of them may have dire, but different, results - "any maiden who dreams of daffodils is warned not to go into a wood with her lover, or any secluded place, where she might not be heard if she cried out" (Mackay).

As with other spring flowers, notably cowslips and primroses, one has to be careful with daffodils when there is poultry about. There is an old Manx superstition that it is bad luck to a poultry keeper if two or three of the flowers are brought into the house in early spring, before the goslings are hatched (the Manx name for the daffodil shows the connection - it translates to Goose-leek). One finds this superstition in Devonshire, too, while a Cornish belief was that if a goose saw a daffodil before hatching its goslings, it would kill them when they did hatch (Courtney). A Dorset compromise says that you must always take care that the first daffodils brought into the house each season should be a large bunch, for otherwise something is sure to go wrong with the poultry (Udal). Judging from the primrose and cowslip beliefs, what you really should do is to take in quite a bunch - two or three are fatal; the ideal is probably thirteen or more. On the other hand, in parts of Warwickshire, it is a thoroughly unlucky flower, never to be taken indoors.

In Shakespeare's time, daffodils were favourite flowers for chaplets, and there is a quotation from Fletcher's The two noble kinsmen:

A hundred black eyed maids that love as I do,

With chaplets on their heads of daffodils".

The narcissus is, of course, the symbol of egotism and self-love. The story of Narcissus, enamoured of his own beauty, becoming spell-bound in front of his own image, is too well-known for comment.

The flowers have not been much used, if we except that of dyeing Easter eggs (Newall). But the bulbs and roots are a different matter. "The roots of Narcissus have such wonderfull qualities in drying, that they consound and glew together very great wounds, yea, and such gashes or cuts as happen about the veins, sinues, and tendons" (Gerard/Langham). It was still being recommended in the mid-18111 century (Hill). Gerard went on, "they have a certain clensing facultie ... The root ... stamped with hony, and applied plaister-wise, helpeth them that are burned with fire, and joineth together sinues that are cut in sunder". This poultice was also good for sprained ankles, "aches and pains of the joints", sunburn, when used with honey and nettle seed, and honey and darnel meal, to "draw forth thorns and stubs out of any part of the body". In the words of Holland's translation of Pliny (1601), " a cataplasm made of the root ..., honey and oatmeal, draws forth spills, shivers, arrowheads, and thorns, and whatever stick within the body" (Seager). But the bulb is actually toxic, and can produce severe poisoning. Indeed, the word narcissus can be traced back to the Greek naike, stupor, an allusion to this narcotic property (Cunningham & Côté). The inference must be that Narcissus himself must have been suffering from similar effects. However, it is used in homeopathy, for bronchitis and whooping cough (Schauenberg & Paris). The Greeks reckoned that narcissus root was one of the cures for impotence (Simons), and there is a Moroccan belief that by smelling a narcissus a person avoids catching syphilis, and, if he has already caught it, can cure himself of it (Westermarck).

A daffodil bulb had other virtues, too - "if men possessed with evil spirits, or mad men, bear it in a clean napkin, they be delivered from their disease", put into verse in a late 14th century manuscript as:

This herb in a clean cloth, and its root

Against the falling evil is medicine.

Affodille in clean cloth kept thus

Shall suffer no fiend in that house;

If ye bear it on you day and night,

The fiend of you shall have no sight (quoted in

Rickert).

As Albertus Magnus said, "it suffereth not a devil in the house".

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