Narcissus is derived from the Greek word narke, meaning numb or narcotic.
This week we are featuring the glorious, golden daffodil, the harbinger of spring! There are currently over 13,000 different types, but at one time this beloved spring flower was in danger of being extinct.
Daffodils were cherished for over 2,000 years, inspiring poetry first by Virgil, a Roman poet (70 - 19 BC), in his Empurpled Narcissus. In 1807, William Wordsworth wrote I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud, a heartfelt tribute to a “long belt” of daffodils, In 1962, Bullwinkle J. Moose, from The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends, endured jail time and a fine of $1 per daffodil to gather a bouquet.
But the daffodils popularity had a period of decline. The golden trumpets were popular through the early 1600s. The botanist John Parkinson (1567-1650), loved the flowers and was the first in England to grow the double yellow Spanish daffodil. He identified 94 varieties. But sadly, the plants fell out of favor. They were later perceived as inferior to tulips, lilies and hellebores, and were no longer valued. For two and a half centuries, daffodils were all but ignored until the Daffodil King came to the rescue! I’m familiar with Johny Appleseed, but had no idea a Daffodil King existed!
Peter Barr, a Victorian era nurseryman, read Parkinson’s Paradisus in Sole, describing the varieties of daffodils and narcissus that grew in the British Isles in the 1600s. He was frustrated that they no longer existed locally and became obsessed with finding them and giving them a renaissance.
Barr, a Scotsman, traveled through out Europe in the mid 1800s, often on horseback, in search of these wildflowers.. At age 72, Barr expanded his search worldwide, planning a five year trip which actually lasted for seven. He traveled to Australia, China, Japan, New Zealand, South Africa, islands in the Pacific and the United States to locate and collect the daffodil bulbs. He only spoke Scottish English, so he used pictures to show the locals what he was hoping to find. He told of finding six thousand to seven thousand bulbs in certain areas, and one particularly successful quest resulted in nearly twelve thousand bulbs. All were collected, bagged and returned to England.
In 1890, he demonstrated the success of his travels with a 4 day daffodil festival and in the years that followed, he put on annual displays of up to 2 million plants at his nurseries. As a result, the Gardener’s Chronicle, a British Horticulture periodical, gave him the distinguished and well deserved title of the Daffodil King!
Barr, obviously a modest man, credited the interest in daffodils to Oscar Wilde’s love of yellow.Barr stated, “Wilde used to lecture on aesthetic colours, and to him we owe more than to anyone else the taste for yellow, to my mind the most beautiful colour in nature. He took the sunflower, but that is too ‘lumpy,’ and the people soon got tired of sunflowers. Then my daffodils came—and they came to stay.” [Bendigo Advertiser 1900]
I found this particularly amusing since Oscar Wilde was once arrested, and charged with gross indecency, for carrying a Yellow book! At the time, there were books with yellow covers that were considered scandalous and no decent person would openly carry a Yellow Book in public. But that’s another story for another time!
It’s impossible to say if daffodils would have been completely obliterated if not for The Daffodil King’s efforts, but certainly likely they would not be as well known, revered and cherished as they are today.
There is a wealth of information on Peter Barr and if you are at all intrigued, I highly recommend you check out the links below. . His travel journals were my favorite, describing harrowing, and at times hilarious, adventures! His writing style is delightful!
[20 April 1892] Went on horseback to Jubea [Trubia?]. The horse had four legs, but three of them were lame that is the two front legs had knee caps, and the left hind leg seemed to have lumbago, so that the action was somewhat peculiar – a motion forward, backward and sideways all at one time so that I never knew whether I should fall off or go over the horse’s head or tail. Fortunately I managed to stick on and so escaped biting the dust. After great exertions we covered four miles in three hours. I noticed that I was an object of interest to all on the road but do not know why. [p. 39]
Peter Barr, ‘Travel notes’, a transcript on the American Daffodil Society website
As you celebrate spring’s return, may you fondly remember Peter Barr, the Daffodil King!
"My mission is
to help others see and cherish the beauty,
romance and treasures within and around them
that are often dismissed or completely overlooked."
Mikell is a writer, artist and professional treasure hunter, finding the greatest treasures in the wonderful people who enter her life!