Helen Chappell - April 2011


Daffodils in Ditchbanks
Helen Chappell


I have read that the Druids believed we went through this life in order to stand the strain of eternity. And the Druids lived in the relatively mild climates of Western Europe, warmed by the Gulf Stream. If they spent February in Maryland, they’d have all the practice for eternity they needed.
February may be the shortest calendar month, but by God, in terms of seasonal affective disorder, cold fingers and toes and the urge to hibernate as far back into the cave as you can get, February is endless. February on the Eastern Shore makes eternity look like twenty-four hours on a tropical beach with a cold drink and a cabana boy named Luis who actually thinks you’re cute and not a day over 30. Take that, Druids!
Even in the gray and cold misery that is February, there is hope. Creeping up through the snow, sheltered by the garage from the wind and weather, there were tiny green shoots. They were long and thin and unmistakably daffodils. Tough little optimists, they sprouted upward through the frozen ground, the harsh wind and the ice, looking for the sun. And they survived the month against all odds.
In March, the first signs of spring begin to peek out from beneath last winter’s dried leaves and debris. Snow drops with tiny white petals around a calyx and long green leaves might be considered wildflowers and therefore unworthy of the notice of garden clubs. A snowdrop is a wild child that grows wherever it pleases and, compared to the showy cultivars, is very modest indeed. But it does remind you that winter can’t last forever.
We don’t have much spring or fall anymore. Just brief periods of nice weather between too damned hot and too damned cold. So we have to cherish these brief weeks while we can.
The chief pleasure of oncoming spring is the return of flowers. Now you have your crocuses blooming early, and your tulips, which delight the eye with rainbows of color, and then you have your daffodils.
The Eurasian import is both sturdy and beautiful. It can be as big as a saucer and as yellow as the sun, or tiny as a baby’s fingernail tinged with a fragile pink. For some reason, daffodil breeders just love to fool around with this bulb.
The tulip, which traveled from Turkey to Europe in the 17th century, created such a mania in Holland that the bulbs were used as a currency and an investment. Whole fortunes were made and lost in the tulip mania that swept the country.
When the tulip bubble burst, it almost ruined the economy of the Netherlands. To this day, Holland continues to be a center of tulip cultivation. Breeders are trying to create the perfect black tulip. This long-stemmed colorful flower is lovely and a great joy in any garden, but the bulbs have a short life in these parts.
Now the daffodil, that sturdy yellow and sometimes white celebrant of spring, is much more hardy. Not only do the bulbs multiply over the years, they also seed themselves all across the landscape so that the still-rural ditchbanks of the Shore are peppered with clumps of these lovely trumpets bending their showy heads in the wind.
And they last for a long time! Some of them bloom steadily from mid-March through the end of April. I just like the yellow-ness of them. It speaks of sun and life and joy, and they’re so pretty scattered across the bright green spring grass.
The daffodil came from Spain and was brought to this country in the 18th century. For more than 200 years, it’s brightened gardens and gladdened hearts every spring.
Daffodil, Narcissus, Jonquil - First, let’s settle the names. The official botanical name of the whole genus is Narcissus. Daffodil is the common name. Jonquil is a “species name” within the Narcissus genus. This means that certain daffodils are called Narcissus jonquilla. Some people, particularly in our Southern states, use Jonquil as a common name for the whole genus, but it’s really the species name for a minor group having multiple smaller flowers on each stem. So when you’re using the common name, all colors, sizes and types are daffodils. If you get into the botanical or Latin names, they all begin with Narcissus (the “genus”) and end with a different “species” name.
Some people I know wile away the dark days of winter daydreaming over the garden catalogs, planting fantasy gardens, ordering more bulbs and seeds than they can possibly plant when the weather warms up and the time to plant comes. Since i have a black, death-dealing thumb, I neither reap nor sow, but I admire those who can.
I’ve also come to admire plants that take care of themselves, like the daffodil. If you can’t make enough bulbs, why you just seed yourself all over the place. Either way, it brings joy.
I’ve heard it said that daffodils blooming in a clearing or along a ditchbank indicate there was once a house there, now probably long gone. Good housewives planted daffodils around their homes, and daylilies around the outhouse. Clumps of these are also a good indicator a homestead was once there, but no more.
The daylily blooms in high summer, long after the daffodil, having proved its point, has moved on. The daylily, like the tulip, came from the Middle East. Its flashy orange flowers bloom for a day and then wither, to be replaced by another bloom.
Breeders have created daylilies in all sorts of colors now, and quite civilized it, so it will behave well in borders and around the swimming pool.
But your common everyday daylily doesn’t much care about your landscaping. It’s a very old-fashioned planting that grows happily along fences, ditchbanks and in deserted meadows.
It’s fascinating to remember, if you’re old enough, a time when people had outhouses and daylilies grew all around them. I’m not sure why people planted daylilies around the outhouse, but it was a common bulb. I’m thinking it had something to do with preventing cholera or other diseases, because you can also still find daylilies in old, overgrown graveyards. Like daffodils, once you plant them, daylilies are there for eternity, and will come back every single year, throw up their long green leaves, put up their long thin stems, bloom bright sunset orange for one day, then wilt and die, to be replaced by another.
But it’s the daffodils I’m enjoying this year. I’m enjoying their ability to appear in the wildest and most neglected places. I’m enjoying the beauty of their bright yellow, like the yolk of an egg, and the fragile white, like a spring breeze. They’re a reward, a symbol of regeneration after a long and eternal winter. The Druids would have loved them.