There are 397 daffodils in our yard. 401 if I include the four my housemate Caroline and I snipped off for the jar on our kitchen table. We had no idea that such a happy host of yellow would pop up along the fence of our neighborhood rental home. They all opened in the last couple of weeks: heralds of springtime. We’re delighted to have them!
Daffodils are perennial plants, meaning they flower for multiple seasons. Plants in the genus Narcissus are especially long-lived, with some records suggesting individuals could flower indefinitely, or at least far longer than the lifespan of a human observer. Hence the daffodil’s ancient namesake, Asphodel, after the mystical flowers filling the fields of Elysium in ancient Greek visions of heaven.
Whether daffodils drink the dew of eternal youth is tricky to tell, however, as most tend to spread vegetatively by budding off smaller daughter plants from the mother bulb. But as Caroline obsesses over for her research on clonality in plants, it’s difficult to define where individual plants end in the case of vegetative reproduction. If all the daughter buds are genetically identical, then they technically constitute a single individual, referred to as a genet. Each genet can produce up to 20 offsets via this method, each with their own flower. The crowd of daffodils in our yard could have bloomed from an initial planting of 15 to 20 bulbs.
The secret of beautiful Narcissus’ eternity are the ugly tunicate bulbs we plant in the fall. Bulbs function like silos to stockpile nutrients and shield the developing leaves and flowers from an unpredictable environment. The plant grows from seed to rooted shoot to leaves to full flowering adult with most of its vital structures tucked safely inside. Once the bulb is mature, it continues to produce inflorescences every year from its apical meristem, a collection of stem cells at the base of the bulb that continually divide and differentiate into root, shoot, and bud tissues throughout the plant’s life.
Growing from bulbs nearly guarantees the long term survival and spread of daffodils under the earth. Further, their cheerful yellow flowers attract pollinators like bumblebees, which dip into their trumpet-shaped centers to drink nectar, gathering pollen on their fuzzy bellies in the process. When a bee enters another flower, it rubs that pollen onto the flower’s female stigmata, enabling daffodils to propagate sexually with nearby individuals. Fertilized seeds either fall directly under their mother and germinate there or disperse on the wind to a new patch of ground. It takes from 5 to 7 years for a tiny black seed to grow into a full fleshy bulb. Come the following March, leaves and a flower appear, and in ten years, that single flower becomes a dozen. And in a hundred years, through this mixture of breeding via budding bulbs and bright flowers, that single seed can beget a line of thousands.
Whenever I see daffodils, I’m reminded of one of mine and my dad’s favorite poems, I wandered lonely as a cloud by William Wordsmith. Wordsmith wanders wistfully through nature, as all serious poets are wont to do, until he spies a field of daffodils and is instantly overcome with exuberant joy. The final stanza feels particularly poignant today:
“For oft, when on my couch I lieWilliam Wordsmith
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.”
Whenever we enter our kitchen, Caroline and I always pause and admire the cheery yellow flowers on the table. The daffodils are a touch of color and light in the eerie gloom of our house that shouldn’t feel this cold and empty when we’re all stuck at home. And when I tug my eyes from my laptop and gaze out my window at the daffodils dancing in the warm spring breeze, I can’t help but smile.
Happy first full day of spring! May you also find your daffodils.
Share your own observations in the comments, on social media, or personally with loved ones.
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