Bright & Beautiful

24th March 2018

Nothing announces the arrival of springtime more eloquently than a host of daffodils. Yet in many ways, this much-loved and familiar flower remains mysterious

Words by Helen O'Neill

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Goodwood’s daffodils are a secret blend of bulbs from Holland, comprising early-, mid- and late-flowering varieties. They are planted each year to ensure that the motor circuit is surrounded by a triumphant crop of these bright spring blooms, ready for Members’ Meeting in March. Every October, supplier Michael Lubbe visits the Estate with his sons to plant the bulbs using a special machine, which means they can place them much closer together than by hand. This spring the circuit looks particularly spectacular with 500,000 bulbs in bloom.

Daffodils are intoxicating. A celebrity power flower that annually raises millions for cancer research, the daffodil is internationally adored as spring’s cheerful herald. Yet just a few centuries ago this plant was so unpopular, hardly anyone in England would even consider bringing one into their home.

It’s the ultimate makeover: the dazzling, dancing blooms have gone from being shunned by all to entrancing poets, inspiring designers, captivating perfumers and fascinating scientists. This humble bulb now represents everything from hope, rebirth, eternal life and mystery to unrequited love.

The daffodil’s remarkable tale began over 18 million years ago in southwest Europe’s Iberian Peninsular. This plant contains toxic alkaloids, and ancient cultures grew to fear it as a semi-supernatural living link to the hereafter. One Greek myth associates daffodils with the tragic demise of the vain youth Narcissus (hence the plant’s Latin name), while another relates how these flowers lured the goddess Persephone to her Underworld doom. Roman soldiers are said to have carried daffodil bulbs as suicide pills, believing that they guaranteed wounded fighters a smooth passage to the spirit world beyond.

Even so, early healers believed that, carefully used, the daffodil possessed medicinal qualities – a fact that medical researchers continue to explore to this day, working on the theory that compounds derived from certain varieties of the plant could be used to treat cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.

The daffodil, it should be stressed, is not one flower but many. Botanists recognise 54 species plus various naturally occurring hybrids that bloom from early spring to autumn. Some can be described as nocturnal, releasing deep scents into the night air to entice pollinating moths. From these, enthusiasts have created over 30,000 different named daffodils – an impressive panoply that varies in size (from 5cm dwarfs to 50cm giants), shape (classic trumpets, twisted starbursts, flat-faced flowers, multi-headed blooms, to name a few) and colour (everything from ghostly whites through to oranges, yellows, reds, greens and even some with tinges of mauve).

Each cultivar has a name – “Lucifer”, “Intrigue”, “Hanky Panky”, “Flirt”, “Foundling”, “Sulphur’s Flame” and many more – a story, and a dedicated breeder. The tales of so-called “daffodonians” attempting to engineer the exquisite are laced with drama, occasional danger and plenty of romance.

The cult of the daffodil began in earnest in the 1800s and was largely pioneered by Scottish horticulturist Peter Barr, known to aficionados as the “Daffodil King”. Bulb prices exploded (fittingly, there’s a variety named “Fortune”) and daffodil devotees became so protective of their prize blooms, one even booby-trapped her garden with explosives to deter thieves.

By the turn of the 21st century, daffodils had become ubiquitous, and yet there’s still so much more to learn about them: indeed, science has yet to fully fathom their basic structure. The more you look into this flower, the deeper the gold.

Daffodil – Biography of a Flower by Helen O’Neill is published by HarperCollins, RRP £18.99.

This article is taken from the Goodwood magazine, Spring 2018 issue

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