William Wordsworth and the History of the Daffodil

Gill Campbell, our Head of Environment Studies, explores the history and uses of daffodils over the years, in light of the 250th anniversary of William Wordsworth’s birth. Even though you may not be able to get out and see some, you can still ‘dance with the daffodils’ from the comfort of your sofa.

‘For oft, when on my couch I lie
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’

I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud, William Wordsworth

Wordsworth and the Daffodils

Dove Cottage
Dove Cottage © Historic England, ref: DP056063

William and Dorothy Wordsworth saw the daffodils which inspired the poem, when walking by the shores of Ullswater from their home at Dove Cottage, Grasmere.

These were our native wild daffodil (Narcissus pseudonarcissus spp. pseudonarcissus) which still grows in damp open woodlands and grasslands developed from former woodland, in the Lake District, Gloucestershire and other parts of Britain.

The wild native daffodil has a corona (cup) which is darker than the petals (tepals). This feature helps to differentiate it from other introduced daffodils, such as the Spanish daffodil, where the corona is the same colour as the tepals.

From Roadside to Flower Market

Black and white image of daffodils
Wild daffodils growing in a clearing, photograph taken by John Gay in 1971 © Historic England, ref: AA097144

Patches of daffodils on roadside verges or close to houses are usually the result of people discarding garden rubbish, or they mark the boundaries of former gardens.

Larger displays in hedgerows or along field margins may denote former bulb fields. During the Second World War, the ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign saw many daffodil fields ploughed and converted to growing food. The bulbs were tipped out onto the field edges where they continued to thrive.

People began commercially growing daffodils for their flowers 145 years ago when Willam Trevellick, a potato farmer in the Isles of Scilly, realised that there might be a market for the daffodils that grew in and around his farm.

He realised that he could use the new railway to transport the flowers to London. His success meant that the idea quickly spread, first to Cornwall, and then beyond, to Lincolnshire and Scotland. Today over 90% of daffodils sold worldwide are produced in Britain, with production centred on Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly.

Detail view of a painted roundel in St Pol de Leons Church, Paul, Cornwall Historic England, ref: DP031990

Daffodils and Archaeology

Blinks seed
Blinks seed from late Neolithic Silbury Hill © Historic England

Despite its association with ancient woodland there are no archaeobotanical records of wild daffodil. This is because its pollen, seeds and bulbs are very similar to other species. Additionally, since daffodils have no practical value, they weren’t brought into settlements for food production or other uses. This means their remains either did not end up in archaeological features, or if they did, they have not been recognised as such.

However there is one plant, blinks (Montana fontana) which links bulbs fields with Britain’s earliest agriculture. Blinks is an unobtrusive little plant which grows on bare muddy ground. It is typical of Scillonian bulb fields where the wide spacing between the bulbs allows it to compete well with other weeds.

Seeds of blinks are frequently recovered from Neolithic and Bronze Age sites in Britain, suggesting it was an early arable weed. Digging plots by hand and planting cereal grain using a digging stick rather than broadcast sowing would lead to the cereal plants being well spaced, providing conditions where blinks could flourish, especially in the absence of more aggressive arable weeds, many of which did not arrive on our shores until at least the Iron Age.

Daffodils, Remembrance and Resurrection

Clifford's Tower with daffodils in bloom
Clifford’s Tower, York. with daffodils in bloom © Historic England, ref: DP032729

Daffodils are often planted to remember a loved one. At Clifford’s Tower in York, hundreds of daffodils flower on the motte in memory of the massacre of around 150 Jews on 16 March 1190 AD. The daffodils provide a poignant annual memorial to those who died, their six gold tepals bringing to mind the six-pointed Star of David.

Daffodils have also been used in Christian sermons at Easter to convey how news of the Resurrection spread. The preacher eats a few tepals after telling the congregation that they will not believe what they are about to see. They then point out that if one person told their friends “I just saw the bishop eat a daffodil” they would not be believed, but if there are many witnesses the reports would gain ground.

In doing this, preachers know only to eat a little of the flower. All parts of daffodils are poisonous, containing the toxin lycorine. However, the concentration in the flower is very low so eating a little bit should be harmless, unlike eating the leaves or bulbs which causes nausea, vomiting, abdominal pain, and diarrhoea.

Daffodils also produce another compound called galanthamine; with daffodils grown above 300 metres containing particularly high concentrations. This compound, rather than causing harm to humans, is effective in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.

Written by Gill Campbell, Head of Environmental Studies.

Header Image Daffodils Historic England, ref: DP113884

Further Reading

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