Who will clear up mystery of ‘native’ daffodils?

A FEW weeks ago I wrote an article for this page about unusual garden birds and mentioned a photograph sent in by a reader of a snipe feeding on a suburban front lawn.

I thought this was unusual, but apparently it happens more often than I realised.

Since the article appeared, several more people have contacted me with records or pictures of snipe competing with blackbirds for worms on the lawn.

In most cases the snipe arrived during the very hard weather when normal feeding spots in rural areas were frozen solid.

But a couple of the reports noted that the snipe seemed to be enjoying life as a garden bird and had stayed on long after the thaw.

I haven’t come across any snipe in my own garden but, even here in the cold midlands, a lot of daffodils have appeared.

I know that the hundreds of varieties of cultivated daffodil have been bred from Narcissus pseudonarcissus, the European wild daffodil. What I wasn’t sure about was the status of the wild daffodil in Ireland.

So I went on the internet — spent quite a lot of time on it — and ended up baffled and confused. One reputable site informed me that wild daffodils were a rather rare and declining species in Britain but were not native to northern Scotland or Ireland.

Another, equally reputable, claimed that they were native to Ireland, though rather rare, and there was even a mention of a woodland site where they grow in Co Kilkenny.

So what’s the story?

Perhaps they are not native here but have been introduced at some time in the past to brighten up estate woodlands in spring.

Or perhaps the daffodils that grow ‘wild’ along river banks and in some woodlands are actually cultivated varieties that have naturalised and reverted to a simpler form. Or perhaps, and this happens quite often, someone was reading a British textbook and came across the word ‘native’ and assumed it applied to Ireland. If any botanists out there know the correct answer I’d love to hear it.

Anyway, daffodils are naturally plants of deciduous woodland which is why they flower in the early spring before most of the trees have developed leaves. Primroses and dog violets adopt the same strategy.

After they flower the long, strap-like leaves need a few weeks more to photosynthesise and build up nutrients in the bulb. The leaves are quite fleshy and, at this hungry season of the year, there is a danger that they will be eaten by deer, rabbits or squirrels.

To counteract this, the ever-ingenious daffodil has another strategy.

The leaves contain quite a powerful alkaloid toxin that is guaranteed to give any grazing animal a very sick stomach.

There are several cases on record of humans suffering daffodil poisoning. In most of the cases the bulbs were eaten in the mistaken belief that they were onions.

The daffodil is the national flower of Wales. The true symbol of Wales is, of course, the leek.

But it appears that some middle class Victorian Welsh people decided leeks were rather too proletarian and smelly to be a suitable national symbol — after all, coal miners grew them to feed their families — so they attempted to substitute the more socially acceptable daffodil.

There’s an Irish connection too. It seems William Wordsworth’s famous — but awful — poem about daffodils was inspired by a visit to Dunsink Observatory at Castleknock in the Dublin suburbs. He was a close friend of William Rowan Hamilton, the Irish mathematician, physicist, astronomer and all round genius who, at the precocious age of 22, was appointed Professor of Astronomy at Trinity College Dublin and Director of the Observatory. Apparently Wordsworth paid a memorable visit to William Hamilton some time in March.

* dick.warner@examiner.ie


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