On Daffodils

Yesterday afternoon I was offered some bulbs for free, but I had to pass. I had a deadline for my next book to-be today, and I have a much bigger one in two weeks. When would I have time to plant bulbs? Never-mind the fact that it is already December and the top crust of the soil is already a little bit frozen.

Adding to these excuses is the fact that I have not had a chance to make plans for the space. Chances are good that I will have to dig up anything we put in. Oh, and have I mentioned that our yard slopes significantly? Once we dig the whole thing up in the spring, we will also have to shift the soil around in an attempt to level it out a bit. Raised beds might be in order to make up for the steepest slopes.

I told Davin about the bulbs and that I was going to have to turn them down. He was disappointed. I had introduced the prospect of spring flowers to enjoy 3 or 4 months from now, and he couldn’t let the dream go.

Thirty minutes later I found myself pressing the “ORDER” button on $88 dollars worth of assorted spring bulbs with the promise that he will do most of the planting. Planting that will probably happen while snow is falling from the sky.

A few of those bulbs were daffodils. Not the daffodils in these pictures, but still daffodils. Pretty little daffodils. I don’t know who I am sometimes anymore. Not in a bad way. But more in a “I could not have predicted this, kind of way. I’ve become a person who likes begonias. And daffodils.

Later that day I picked up a book I’ve been reading but had put down for a month through the moving madness. The book is novel set in Jamaica that introduces a lot about West Indian history and colonialization post slavery. As I began reading, the poem “Daffodils” by Wordsworth came up. According to the story, West Indian children were taught to memorize this poem and to appreciate the daffodil, a flower they had never, and likely would never see outside of a textbook.

I’m not sure exactly what I’m trying to say here (perhaps I will get to it by the end) except that there are threads. A year ago (to within just a few days) I travelled to the West Indies to find my ancestral roots. That experience has lead to further and deeper exploration that I don’t imagine will ever be complete. Within that same year, I found myself becoming more attracted to daffodils, a flower I grew up with and found to be rather dull and pedestrian. And then I come back full circle to this little nugget of history and how my mother’s generation were taught (or rather indoctrinated) to hold the motherland (Britain) in the highest esteem through its symbols (of which the daffodil is one) and to ignore, negate and sometimes hate the parts of their own real homeland that are true and tangible.

This thought also leads me back to the essay in Jamaica Kincaid’s book, “My Garden Book” that is about this very topic, although I don’t believe daffodils are specifically mentioned. All of this is just another way of looking at plants. This dark side that has specific meaning to my own history and the history of the people (my people) who came before me. I am interested in this dark side. I don’t want to turn away from it because it is dark. Yet despite knowing this and understanding in a very clear and personal way what the effects are of this darkness….

There is this other light side. I still really like daffodils. I feel cheerful when I see them. I want to put them in my garden, even though they are not useful in the way we have come to value usefulness. Even though they are expensive and decadent and they take up space that could be used to grow useful, edible plants. Even though they are in some way (and not the fault of the daffodil), a symbol of the conquering class. At the end of that essay Jamaica Kincaid says that she can see that she has joined the conquering class.

Like Jamaica Kincaid I have my feet in two worlds. And as a gardener I grow plants for usefulness to nourish my body, but I also grow them for the simple pleasure of them. For the most part this is seen as decadence. And indulging in decadence, being ABLE to indulge in decadence at all, puts me on the side of the conquering class.

Unlike Jamaica Kincaid I am unwilling to see myself in that way, even if others might.

Because somewhere in the midst of all that screwed up history of physical, mental, and ideological conquest, the daffodil is still just a sunny little flower (nothing more or less) and I am just a person who takes delight in seeing it (spiritual nourishment perhaps?). Somehow we are all of these dark and light things at once, and yet also, too, this one simple thing: a flower and a human being. And none of that other shit matters at all.

Gayla Trail
Gayla is a writer, photographer, and former graphic designer with a background in the Fine Arts, cultural criticism, and ecology. She is the author, photographer, and designer of best-selling books on gardening, cooking, and preserving.

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14 thoughts on “On Daffodils

  1. Are Early Snowdrops in your order? Love them, they peak out through the snow, as early as February in Chicago. Cute little nodding flower.

  2. i love this post. i love the threads you’re unraveling as you dig deeper and deeper into your roots. (the worst mixed metaphor ever, esp. for a gardening blog…but i suspect you understand my intent.)

  3. Daffodil as a pleasure flower! I love it!:) No, this has nothing to do with being part of the conquering class… we should be aware of the things around us that give us pleasure. You’re absolutely right in that daffodils are cheerful flowers – and cheerfulness is contagious. Indulging in this type of pleasure is good for the soul.

  4. Daffodils are my favorite Spring flowers .. I am glad to be in the “dark’ about any dark side to them .. some times we just NEED to appreciate flowers for what the appear to be to us .. beautiful dots of colour in our lives ?
    Yet .. I fully understand the interest of the history to them and other plants .. it is a thin line to balance on .. how much do we need or want to know ?
    Great Post !

  5. Hey Gayla, Let me add some more twists and turns to this. The daffodil in Wordsworth’s poem is Narcissus pseudonarcissus which is not native to the British Isles and is thought to have been brought in by the Romans ( that other notable ruling class).
    The Daffodil is also the floral emblem of the Welsh ( in fact, the emblem is officially the leek, but the Daff is more commonly accepted). So we have another twist, the Welsh use the daffodil as an emblem of national identity after being under the yoke of English rule for centuries.

  6. Gayla,
    Me again. Daffodils needn’t take up much space. The most desirable ones are the smaller species and the many hybrids derived from N. cyclamineus, all of them around 8″ to 10″. However, however small, I’d like to have a Wordsworthian ‘host of golden daffodils’.

  7. Gayla,
    I can’t even tell you how much I loved this post. The threads you picked up and managed to weave together ended up making a beautiful, complex story about something that most people see as a cheery little flower. And that is why I love reading your blog. I always say that gardening isn’t “just” gardening for me — it’s something bigger and deeper than just plopping plants or bulbs into soil. This post is the perfect example of that — thank you for writing it!

  8. So true – I used to find daffodils so cloying and annoyingly yellow. Then I discovered tiny delicate yellow narcissus and double daffodils and then I began to love them as well. I still have some of the wild yellow ones growing on my front hillside, but I’m learning to enjoy them all the more.

    I also have come to appreciate them more, as the deer that ravage my tulips, but do not touch them. They can be used in a permaculture system to plant around fruit trees and other edible plants that you don’t want the deer to eat – so they can be useful in their own way, just not directly available to eat. But they can help save things we do want to eat.

    Love the way daffodils are connected to your heritage – quite lovely.

  9. Gayla – this is really lovely. I have a story about daffodils, too. Not nearly as yours but still, they were meaningful in my family and dismissed by me until the last few years. They seem like one of those flowers with a deep history in a lot of families.

  10. I think this is very thought provoking. I guess when you start breaking it down, there are probably many things in our lives that have a dark past and are here because some group of people were oppressed for us to obtain them. But I like your last line the best. Becuase there is nothing more pleasing than a daffodil poking through the soil after a long dark winter. Thanks for your thoughtfulness.

  11. This is a great post; thanks for writing it. I’ve come to think spring flowers are supremely useful plants. They always medicate end-of-winter-blues.

  12. the day their little yellow bonnets peek up out of the ground will be one of the most funnest sunny smiling days in your new home & all four of your cheeks muscles will hurt all day a bit I bet – your post made me prematurely joyful – my first year of gardening I ate the yellow off a dandylion I was so happy

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