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The Dangerous Beauty

of Narcissus

By Audrey Stallsmith

narcissus pseudonarcissus

That come before the swallow dares, and take
The winds of March with beauty. . .

William Shakespeare: The Winter's Tale

Daffodils spring up like sudden miracles in the weeks surrounding Easter. Their sunny good looks, unsullied by the season's mud, shine in dazzling contrast to the pale and scentless winter left behind. But some of the ancients considered that fresh-faced beauty deceitful.

Socrates called narcissus "the chaplet of the infernal gods." Homer, while acknowledging the flower's loveliness, asserted that it could cause torpor, insanity, and death. Narcissus derives its title, in fact, from the Greek narkao--"to numb."

Its namesake in Greek mythology, the son of a river god, perished after he became entranced with his own reflection in the water. For that reason, narcissus represents "conceit" in the Language of Flowers. According to one unknown poet, "The delicate narcissus pines away/ In hectic langour. . ."

Anyone who has grown the popular paperwhite variety indoors will testify to its sweet and heavy, almost stupefying, scent. At close quarters, that perfume can cause headache and even nausea in sensitive people.

Fortunately, the daffodil (narcissus pseudo-narcissus) is not as overpowering as its relative and stands for "regard." Also called porillon, daffodowndilly or daffodily Affodily from the days when it was mistakenly linked with asphodel, it is a cheerful, carefree greeter of spring. One of Shakespeare's characters sang, "When Daffodils begin to peer,/ With heigh! the doxy o'er the dale/ Why then comes in the sweet o' the year."

Prospering in either sun or light shade, the flower multiplies rapidly and survives years of neglect. In fact, daffodils still faithfully return every April to the sites of many long-abandoned farms. The crystals of calcium oxide present in their leaves and bulbs protect them from assault by animals or bugs. Most varieties do require occasional division, however, to keep them at their blooming best.

Spenser wrote, "Strew me the ground with daffodowndillies,/ With cowslips, and kingcups, and loved lillies." Gerard reports that "the root of Narcissus stamped with honey and applied plaister-wise, helpeth them that are burned with fire, and joineth together sinues that are cut in sunder. Being used in manner aforesaid it helpeth the great wrenches of the ancles, the aches and pains of the joints."

The grated bulbs were also employed to "draw out" boils and other abcesses and to treat hysterical conditions. But the narcissus is really too poisonous to be used for self-medication. Mrs. Grieve's Modern Herbal warns that applying the extract to open wounds can cause "staggering, numbness of the whole nervous system and paralysis of the heart."

Narcissus contains an alkaloid called narcissine which, "in warm-blooded animals acts as an emetic (incites vomiting), causing eventually collapse and death by paralysis of the central nervous system." Most people poisoned by the bulbs in the past mistook them for onions.

The official classes of narcissus include: trumpet, large-cup, small-cup, double, triandrus, cyclamineus, jonquilla, tazetta, poeticus, and species (wild) varieties. The least hardy are the tazettas, which include the paperwhites, but they can easily be forced indoors. With the exception of a few species types which are only dependable to Zone 6, most daffodils prove remarkably hardy--considering that they originated in the Mediterranean countries!

An elderly woman for whom I worked years ago would insist on calling them "lilies." I thought that an eccentric and individual quirk until I discovered that daffodils were, in the past, commonly known as Lent Lilies. I wrote this poem for her.

Lilies, she calls them, not classy
Chill funereals, but brassy
Trumpets that blare on April hills,
Our daring, dancing daffodils.

Death sets flowers in stiff array,
Wired, inevitable bouquet.
"The end, the end," they croon
In hardening, hypnotic tune.

The merry daffodils laugh, dance,
Curtsy with gypsy impudence.
"No end, no end. We've lived and lived
And live again. Spring's the given

In any garden; ask our brothers who
Burned the night outside a Judean tomb.

Narcissus pseudonarcissus image is from Les Liliaces by P. J. Redoute, courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden.