"Pay attention to the world." -- Susan Sontag
Twelve Dozen Daffodils (5 of 8)

Twelve Dozen Daffodils (5 of 8)

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

“Daffodils appear in paintings and in poetry, as emblems of spring and of nature. This cultural status is surely a large part of their appeal; we buy them as tight buds from florists as early as we can at the end of the winter not just because we know they will be pretty and yellow, but because Wordsworth and other poets wrote about them, and they appear endlessly reproduced as a sign of spring at every level of art from the museum-hung masterpiece to souvenir-shop kitsch.”

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

“French writer Charlotte de la Tour triggered the craze for floriography dictionaries with her captivating 1819 tome Le Langage des Fleurs. Fast translated into English, Tour’s book claimed to divulge the secrets of ancient floral traditions that included the historically dubious Turkish practice of women in harems using a mysterious code comprised of flowers to spell out secret messages to their lovers. The Georgian, and then the Victorian, public adored the notion that they could bypass social etiquette by speaking to each other with individual blooms, tussie-mussies (little posies) and ‘talking’ bouquets.

“Suddenly flowers could be used to flirt, insult, abuse and dismiss — as long as both the sender and recipient understood what they represented. A flurry of code-breaking floral dictionaries appeared, enabling these covert communiques to be translated with precision.

“From the outset the daffodil had trouble. La Tour lists the meaning of narcissus as ‘egoisme’ (selfishness) and asphodel as the more sinister ‘Mes regret vous suivent au tombeau’ (my regrets follow you to the grave). Jonquil fared somewhat better, representing feelings of desir (desire)….

“The floriography fad swept through nineteenth-century popular culture, leaving ever-changing nuances, contradictions and absurdities rippling in its wake.”


This is the fifth of eight posts featuring daffodils from Oakland Cemetery’s gardens. The previous posts are Twelve Dozen Daffodils (1 of 8), Twelve Dozen Daffodils (2 of 8), Twelve Dozen Daffodils (3 of 8), and Twelve Dozen Daffodils (4 of 8). Those with white petals and yellow coronas are among my favorites of this series, and there will be a few more like them and some with orange coronas in my next post.

Floriography — often referred to as a fad, craze, or obsession with incorporating flower imagery in literature or art — emerged and grew along with botanical exploration, from as early as the sixteenth century but burgeoning in popularity during the European Victorian era. The history of floriography — or botanical literature and botanical art — is as complex as the history of botany itself, and gets coverage in the books we’re studying for these daffodil posts. For the Victorians, floriography — and botanical art generally — functioned as something of a stand-in for some who were not in a position to accompany explorers on plant-hunting expeditions, while contributing to the body of work documenting plant-life worldwide along with the scientific work produced by plant hunters and gardeners.

If the subject interests you, I’ve found two other books that explore it very helpfully: Beautiful Escape: Botany, Art, History by Edwin McLeod; and Women of Flowers: A Tribute to Victorian Women Illustrators by Jack Kramer. Both have excellent examples of early botanical illustration; and the second one (which is available to borrow on the Internet Archive) fills an important gap by focusing on the role of women illustrators and writers in botanical art and literature. I’ve had the first book for a while and have used it often for research; I stumbled on the second book upon discovering how little information I could find about Charlotte de la Tour (a pen name for Louise Cortombert), despite her (probable) authorship of the important floriography text, Le Langage des Fleurs, or The Language of Flowers. Sometimes it’s the things I can’t find that get my attention.

Helen O’Neill’s notation that “from the outset the daffodil had trouble” got my attention also. The idea that daffodils have contradictory characteristics appears even in sources about cemetery symbolism. In the book Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography, for example, the author Douglas Keister describes daffodils like this:

“The daffodil is [a] funerarily schizophrenic flower. Depending on its use, it can have the positive attributes of rebirth and resurrection or the negative attributes of vanity and self-love. It is the flower of the underworld and of paradise.

“Its narcissistic symbolism comes from the Greek legend of the youth Narcissus, who spurned the beautiful nymph, Echo. While gazing at and admiring his own image in a pool of water, he fell in and drowned; at the spot where Narcissus fell into the pool, a beautiful flower emerged. Christians cleverly turned the Narcissus story around (why waste a beautiful flower?) and gave it the attributes of the triumph of divine love and sacrifice over vanity, selfishness, and death.”

More amusably, daffodils were made anthropomorphological (haha! imaginary word alert!) by some early artists, including J. J. Grandville, who published Les fleures animees (usually translated as The Flowers Personified). There are selected images from the book on The Public Domain Review website at J. J. Grandville’s Illustrations from The Flowers Personified (1849). Among the many flowers Grandville blended with human characteristics, there are two occurrences of daffodils in the book. You can find them on that web page but I’ve also included them at the bottom of this post so you don’t have to hunt them down. The daffodils in the first image are probably Narcissus tazetta like some I included in my previous post — though I do think it’s unlikely that Grandville patterned his illustrations after my photos.


Thanks for reading and taking a look!


  1. Tim Lamb

    Nice … one of my favorite. You captured this so well, and I especially love it as its cropped close in the banner. I think what I love most is how you bring the image in so clearly as parts of the focus flower disappears out of the square range of your prints. Great technique and eye.

    1. Dale

      Thank you! The ones like those in the banner photo were among my favorites also — the lighting was just right so I was able to get good focus and some nice colors.

      Thanks for the comment!

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