"Pay attention to the world." -- Susan Sontag
Twelve Dozen Daffodils (2 of 8)

Twelve Dozen Daffodils (2 of 8)

From Daffodil: The Remarkable Story of the World’s Most Popular Spring Flower by Noel Kingsbury:

“The nineteenth century saw the British fan out all over the world, and while they may have, for a period, governed vast stretches, they actually tended to settle only in those climates which had some resemblance to what they knew at home. With them went their language, culture, crops, and garden plants. Daffodils and Britishers took root in similar climes, and today it should come as no surprise that the United States, New Zealand, and Australia are home to growers and enthusiasts….

“It was in the United States that daffodils really took off. A trickle of bulbs in the early 1800s had become a flood of Dutch imports by the end of the century….

“Early settlers… brought their daffodils with them — their ability to survive for long periods as dry bulbs must have helped their journey across the Atlantic. Consequently, small hotspots of naturalising bulbs built up soon, especially in Virginia.

“The later years of the nineteenth century saw immense imports from the Netherlands, but this went into sharp decline with the 1919 Plant Quarantine Act, which finally stopped importation of bulbs in 1926 for several decades. This stimulated home production, with a number of Dutch firms setting up on Long Island, in the coastal Virginia area, and in places between Portland and Seattle, such as the Skagit Valley. Jan de Graaff, a member of the leading Dutch nursery family, went to Portland in 1926 to set up bulb farms, investing in breeding as well as production, but after naming around fifty varieties he sold off the daffodils in 1959 and concentrated on lilies, for which the business became world famous. The Pacific Northwest was for a while a major producer of bulbs, the high point being the 1940s, when twenty scientists and sixty-nine research projects were working on bulb production and pest and disease control.”

From Daffodil: The Biography of a Flower by Helen O’Neill:

“Just where and when the first daffodil bloomed remains something of a mystery, but one point upon which researchers agree is that it was certainly nowhere near Britain. Many hold that the flower originated in south-west Europe’s Iberian Peninsula, an area encompassing countries such as Portugal, Spain and France that represents a hotspot of Narcissus diversity. The first daffodil appeared at some point between around 29 and 18 million years ago (the late Oligocene and early Miocine eras), making it what Spencer Barrett, Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Toronto, terms a ‘relative newcomer to the story’ of evolution. It is, he told me, ‘quite an advanced flowering plant’. Humans, of course, are newer still. For eons we existed as hunter-gatherers until around 10,000 years ago we began experimenting with domesticating the wild creatures around us. This evolutionary milestone would ultimately prompt reliance on a tiny fraction of Earth’s plants and animals, and result in humans becoming arguably the most powerful single species on Earth.

“Unlike wheat, cotton, rice or maize the daffodil appeared to have little obvious use. Ancient cultures feared it with good reason — its bulbs, stems, leaves and flowers are all toxic — and some civilisations saw it as a living link to the hereafter, an element in myths that sought to unravel the mysteries of life after death. A fraught relationship developed between daffodils and humans but as we explored, traded, invaded and subjugated each other it would appear that we took Narcissus along for the ride….

“Daffodils appeared to have been domesticated on at least three separate occasions: during the Middle Ages, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and then again in the 1800s. The researchers tracked the flower through Renaissance Europe, noting that in England daffodils were largely ignored until the mid-1500s, and singled out several individuals whose actions had sparked change, including a sixteenth-century man, the son of a French gardener called John Robin, whose name is lost in time but who seems to have been responsible for importing various strains of daffodil from Spain into French gardens.”


This is the second of eight posts featuring daffodils from Oakland Cemetery’s gardens. The first post is Twelve Dozen Daffodils (1 of 8).

It occurred to me when I learned that daffodils are not native to North America, that I had not really given that much thought to their origins. They’re so common throughout much of the United States and Canada that I just assumed they were originally born here, but now I know that’s not the case. And looking into it more, I realize there’s some ambiguity and even controversy about their native roots in Europe and Asia — especially given the fluctuating national or geopolitical boundaries in those regions. Some books will say, for example, that daffodils are not native to England, or the United Kingdom, or Great Britain while others will say they are — attributable in part to, among other things, the shifting boundaries of those entities.

The two excerpts I included above hint at the complexity — which becomes more apparent when you pinpoint the native origins of daffodils to certain geographic regions, then proceed forward in time to their distribution, then discover that “distribution” precedes experimental breeding and commercial production. As is true for many plants that initially accompanied human settlers across the oceans, the contemporary availability of daffodils in North America is certainly tied to 17th and 18th century world exploration, accelerating especially with the expansion of the British empire to far-flung lands outside of Great Britain. Britain’s imperial expansion is just part of the story, of course, but it’s relevance to acclimating native plants to other parts of the world — and acclimating plants from other regions back to Britain then elsewhere — cannot be understated.

As I’ve been researching plant histories over the past couple of years, I’ve noticed how often I encounter historical (and current) sources that were (or are) based in the United Kingdom or Europe — even given that the geographies encompassed by “United Kingdom” and “Europe” have their own shifting boundaries. I considered the possibility that search algorithms were leading me to these sources based on previous searches, since search engines have their own biases based on what they think they know about you. Puzzling about that further though (as one does), led me to develop a question for my imaginary friend ClaudeAI, so here’s what I asked:

When I research plants and their histories, it seems like there is a larger body of work in botanical history from European or British sources rather than from North American sources. Does this observation have any basis in fact, or is it just my imagination?

ClaudeAI’s response was an interesting one, rather long but instructive (think of it in terms of what I’ve posted here about daffodils):

Your observation about there being a larger body of work in botanical history from European or British sources compared to North American sources is valid and has a basis in historical factors. Several reasons contribute to this phenomenon:

  1. Earlier development of botanical studies in Europe: The study of plants and their classification has a longer tradition in Europe, dating back to ancient Greek and Roman scholars like Theophrastus and Pliny the Elder. This head start allowed European botanists to establish a more extensive foundation and literature over the centuries.
  2. Colonial exploration and expeditions: During the era of European colonialism, many botanists and naturalists accompanied expeditions to different parts of the world, including North America. These explorers brought back plant specimens and documented their findings, contributing to the growth of botanical knowledge in Europe.
  3. Established botanical institutions and societies: Europe had well-established botanical gardens, universities, and scientific societies dedicated to the study of plants much earlier than in North America. These institutions fostered research, publications, and the exchange of knowledge among botanists.
  4. Patronage and funding: European monarchs, nobility, and wealthy patrons often supported botanical research and expeditions, providing funding and resources that facilitated the development of the field.
  5. Early immigration patterns: In the early years of European settlement in North America, the focus was primarily on survival, agriculture, and establishing colonies, with less emphasis on scientific pursuits like botany.

However, it’s important to note that over time, North American botanists and institutions have made significant contributions to the field, particularly in the study of regional flora and ecosystems. Many renowned botanists and plant taxonomists have emerged from North America, and the region’s rich biodiversity has provided ample opportunities for research and documentation.

Additionally, indigenous knowledge systems in North America have long held valuable insights into the properties and uses of native plants, although these traditions were often overlooked or marginalized in early Western botanical literature.

In summary, while the historical roots of botanical studies may lie deeper in Europe, North American botanists and institutions have played a crucial role in expanding our understanding of plant diversity and ecology in more recent times.

Any one of the bullet points or paragraphs in this response could be a jumping off point for more research (which is the main reason I use AI tools to begin with), but I was intrigued by the reference to “indigenous knowledge systems of North America.” I seldom encounter any mention of indigenous North Americans in my plant research — which may be another kind of historical bias and also reflects the fact that imperial expansion supplants a region’s native human inhabitants, even if it adds to a region’s flora. With that in mind, I added a few books to my research collection on the Internet Archive that explore Native American botany and how plants were used before North American settlement. Books like Native American Ethnobotany and The Land Has Memory, for example, examine botanical history from before the arrival of the Europeans.

Unsurprisingly, I didn’t find anything about daffodils in those sources — which takes us back around to the starting point of this post: daffodils were not native to North America to begin with, and they’re only here because British and European settlers hauled them across the oceans.

Thanks for reading and taking a look!

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