26. Daffodils

My family is Welsh, and growing up, we children had a choice to make on St. David’s Day. We could either pin a cloth leek to our lapel, or, if we preferred, a cloth daffodil.

As a symbol of Welsh identity, the leek is older. In fact, it dates back to St. David himself, who encouraged his countrymen to wear leeks on their armour during a battle against the Saxons, so as to identify one another.

In Tudor times, the leek was a popular emblem, not least due of that royal family’s Welsh roots. In Henry V, the king himself declares:

“I wear it for a memorable honour; for I am Welsh, you know”

Over the years, though, the leek became the butt of jokes. Pinning a vegetable to one’s Monmouth cap was the sort of thing only a country bumpkin – or, perhaps, a “sheep-shagger” – would do. Leeks duly fell out of favour. And in their stead, daffodils bloomed.

They appear around St. David’s Day, in triumphant fashion, quite literally blowing their trumpets. This is when it really starts to feel like spring. Snowdrops are white and dainty; violets hug the ground; hellebores are altogether more subtle. But when the daffodils bloom, there is no mistaking it.

Is there a flower in Britain more people recognise? Is there anything else as widely and cheaply available, in supermarkets and corner stores, or as easy to grow from a bulb? And is there a roundabout in this country that does not, during the month of March, have a little cluster of daffs at its centre? I don’t think so.

We all notice them at some point around now, and feel a little thrill at spring’s arrival. But then we forget about them. We don’t really look any closer. We should.

You’re probably thinking of a cheery, custard-yellow flower with a long ‘trumpet’, or corona, at its centre. But that’s just one kind of daff.

You can also get orange-on-white ones with coronas that look like blazing suns, and double flowers that are more like roses.

Daffodil orange corona

Double daffodils

You can get chic millennial pink ones, and elegant white spidery ones.

Pink daffodil

White spidery daffodils

Plant nurseries recognise 13 divisions in total, each with dozens of different cultivars. They may not have the cachet of tulips or roses, but there’s just as much going on here.

Their most famous literary mention, of course, comes in William Wordsworth’s I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud. The poem was inspired by a walk in the Lakes, and Dorothy Wordsworth’s subsequent description of a particular sight in her journal:

“I never saw daffodils so beautiful they grew among the mossy stones about and about them, some rested their heads upon these stones as on a pillow for weariness and the rest tossed and reeled and danced and seemed as if they verily laughed with the wind that blew upon them over the Lake, they looked so gay ever glancing ever changing.”

For me, she put it even better than her brother. Daffodils are joyous – but they also droop and sway and fall over like tired toddlers, as anyone who’s seen them late in the season knows. It’s as though they exhaust themselves letting everyone know spring has arrived, after which they need a good nap.

But next St. David’s Day, they’ll be back.

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