"Pay attention to the world." -- Susan Sontag

Twelve Dozen Daffodils (4 of 8)

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

“White Tazetta daffodils are known from the tombs of ancient Egypt, and one of the greatest of the Pharaohs, Ramses II, was buried with daffodil bulbs placed on his eyes. Occasional mentions are to be found in classical texts, and the plants are known to have been grown by the Byzantines, whose Orthodox Christian empire dominated the eastern Mediterranean in the period following the collapse of the Roman Empire in 476.

“The Byzantines were succeeded ultimately by the Ottoman Empire, founded originally by Turkish-speaking nomads from central Asia who, after a few centuries of settling down, began to take gardening and flower culture very seriously. They are known primarily for their love of the tulip, and it was through them that Europe acquired its first bulbs of this flower, but they also cultivated several daffodil varieties, which were also traded into Christian Europe….

“The numbers of varieties slowly and haphazardly increased over time. It is important for us looking back into history to understand that well into the nineteenth century, the concept of species crossing was an alien one. There was no idea that new varieties or species could arise through human intervention — this would have seemed the work of magic, and quite possibly of blasphemy.”

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

“[A] myth arose linking the daffodil with the captivating romance of the ancient Pharoahs. To this day, an often repeated daffodil ‘fact’ is that Ramses II, a legendarily all-powerful Egyptian leader who died in 1213 BC, was ceremonially prepared for the underworld by having Narcissus tazetta bulbs placed on his eyes or around his neck. Narcissus tazetta has been linked to Ramses II by the identification of dry, scale-like fragments from the plant on the outside of his mummified remains, yet the Egyptologists I spoke to struggled with the notion that daffodils held any meaning for Ancient Egyptians.

“It is easy to understand why some promoting the cult of the daffodil latched onto the cache of Ancient Egypt with such fervour. Some contemporary mythmakers in the cosmetics industry are attempting to do something similar, embracing the supposedly remarkable properties of
Narcissus tazetta bulb extract. The promises are legion, including guarding against the stresses of the modern-day environment, warding off wrinkles, bolstering the skin’s elasticity, combating unwanted hair growth and even, on a cellular level, arresting the passage of time.

“The notion that
Narcissus tazetta could hold the secret to eternal youth is seductive but highly unlikely….”


This is the fourth 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), and Twelve Dozen Daffodils (3 of 8).

We’re halfway through the daffodils, folks. I wonder if I missed any….

As was alluded to in my first post, daffodils — like many of our favorite plants and flowers — have embedded themselves not only into mythology but into world cultures overall. Even without agents — or should we say: agency — they’ve become actors in the human story as well as the story of botany. Sometimes their presence is more generic — such as the well-known tale of reflection-gazing Narcissus as the progenitor of narcissism and (some might say) the selfie; and other times, a specific variant makes an appearance as a stand-in for the plant family, as Narcissus tazetta does for the Egyptians.

Fast-forward through the eras of the Greeks, the Egyptians, the Ottoman and Christian empires, to the British empire and then to current days — and you run smack into late-stage capitalism, which commodifies everything and, apparently, tries to embrace a nostalgia around the mythological powers of daffodils.

If I had known that Narcissus tazetta (shown in the last four photos below) was allegedly capable of “guarding against the stresses of the modern-day environment” — as Helen O’Neill mentions above — I would have made a little garden and planted tazettas in my cubicle back when I was working. Eternal youth would have been a nice bonus!

Thanks for reading and taking a look!

Twelve Dozen Daffodils (3 of 8)

From “Early Daffodil History” in Daffodil: The Remarkable Story of the World’s Most Popular Spring Flower by Noel Kingsbury:

“‘It is desirable to call the attention of the humblest cultivators, of every labourer indeed, or operative, who has a spot of garden, or a ledge at his window, to the infinite variety of Narcissi that may be thus raised, and most easily in pots at his window, if not exposed too much to sun and wind, offering him a source of harmless and interesting amusement, and perhaps a little profit and celebrity.’

“These were the words of William Herbert (1778–1847), writing in 1843. An Oxford-educated member of the gentry, he entered Parliament, and then the Church, finally becoming The Very Reverend Dean of Manchester in the Church of England. One of that famous eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English type, ‘the hunting parson,’ he was reportedly fond of outdoor life and sport, as well as being a poet and a keen amateur naturalist — as were so many of his clerical colleagues. He did some experimental breeding, mostly with florist’s flowers….

“Very often the hybrids turned out to be sterile, which confirmed the sneaking suspicion of many that God had created nature, and it was not the job of Man to meddle and try to improve on His creation. Herbert, however, discovered that some of his hybrids were fertile, which led him to challenge the concept of the species as being fixed and immutable. This led him to wonder whether the species was actually rather an arbitrary and artificial distinction.

“These were radical thoughts for anyone in early nineteenth-century Europe, especially for a member of the established church. Herbert decided to carry out an experiment, and it was daffodils which he chose as his subject. He was interested in the family into which the daffodil had been classified, the
Amaryllidaceae, and in writing the first study of the family he dissected the flowers of all 150 daffodil varieties then known in Britain, in order to develop a classification system….

“William Herbert was not only one of the fathers of modern plant breeding, but his example was useful in the battle to get hybridisation accepted in Victorian Britain. Much like genetic modification is seen by some today as ‘unnatural’ and therefore dangerous or even immoral, there was a certain level of opposition to hybridisation during this period. The fact that William Herbert, a Dean of the Church of England, had not only carried it out, but recommended it to others, was made great use of by progressives within the horticultural community.”

From “Daffodils: A Potted History” in Daffodil: The Biography of a Flower by Helen O’Neill:

“It is impossible to understand what daffodil lovers call the ‘modern’ daffodil without meeting some of the nineteenth-century characters who created it and who, in so doing, re-engineered spring. William Herbert (1778–1847) is the first and most intellectually intriguing; a politician, linguist, poet, clergyman and cerebral firebrand who came to be known by a nickname he adopted for himself, which to the modern ear has a mafia-esque ring to it — ‘the Dean’….

“By 1840 Herbert had taken up the prestigious post of Dean of Manchester (from whence came his nickname) and undertaken decades of systematic experiments on plants. He collated data, published research, battled with creationists and impressed his elite peers, a group that included a brilliant youngster called Charles Darwin. In the process Herbert became Britain’s first known amateur plant hybridiser and of all the species he worked with none was closer to his heart than the daffodil….

“Farmers had long understood that plants and animals could be deliberately crossed to produce useful traits, but the mechanics behind this remained mysterious at best and the notion of it, to many people, profoundly frightening. The issue of how to classify living things properly was another area of bewilderment, as was whether — as most believed — creatures produced by mating different kinds of animals or plants… were always infertile.

“Herbert experimented with many plants but was particularly intrigued by
Narcissus…. He wondered whether wild French daffodils were natural hybrids, and with N. pseudonarcissus relatively easy to find in the English countryside he sourced a handful of other ancient varieties, such as N. poeticus and N. incomparabilis, and started forcing them to breed with each other.

“Herbert discovered that creating new daffodils was boundlessly exciting. He became entranced by the unexpected new forms and vivid colours his crosses produced and urged others to try it….

“The Dean’s passion for hybridisation went far beyond any single plant. He wanted to understand the complex connective web that he believed linked creatures of the past to those of the present; the mechanisms by which organisms changed through generations and over time. In 1837 he published Amaryllidaceae: Preceded by an Attempt to Arrange the Monocotyledonous Orders, a dense work (as much of his is) packed with findings, conclusions, speculations and the unexpected evidence that, on top of everything else, he possessed unusually accomplished drawing skills. His images are quite lovely.”


This is the third of eight posts featuring daffodils from Oakland Cemetery’s gardens. The first post is Twelve Dozen Daffodils (1 of 8) and the second post is Twelve Dozen Daffodils (2 of 8).

Since I mentioned the importance of European experimental plant breeding in the previous post, I’ve included a couple of excerpts from each of my daffodil books about one of the British Victorian plant breeders or hybridizers — William Herbert, who combined his eclectic interests with experimentation in plant genetics and produced new plant variants at a time when even contemplating such a thing was somewhat heretical.

I found some of Herbert’s botanical drawings in a collection (from Plantillustrations.org) at this link — which include not only daffodils but other amaryllis drawings that remind me very much of some of the amaryllis photographs I’ve posted here previously (and will likely do so again this summer).

Thanks for reading and taking a look!

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!

Twelve Dozen Daffodils (1 of 8)

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

“Daffodils are true perennials. Some of the plants sold as perennials (as herbaceous or bulbous) have, in truth, a limited lifespan. Among bulbs, tulips and lilies are a case in point. In ideal conditions, they may live for quite a few years, but they do not go on forever and, crucially, have a limited ability to form clumps. Daffodils are not only immensely long-lived but continually clone themselves to form ever-expanding clumps. They are the bulb equivalent of those robust border perennials like hardy geraniums or goldenrod, whose clumps just keep on getting bigger and bigger….

“‘Daffodil’ in most English usages is used to refer to the classic florist and garden daffodil pattern: single flowers with a big trumpet-like cup, usually yellow. Anything else tends to get called ‘narcissus.’ There is no rationale behind this, and it makes life simpler if all members of the botanical genus
Narcissus get called the same — daffodil. ‘Narcissus’ is derived from the Greek narco (‘becoming numb’), the same root as the word ‘narcotic.’ Here then is a hint of one of the few uses to which daffodils were put in traditional herbal medicine. [John] Gerard refers to the classical Greek writer Sophocles calling them ‘the garland of the great infernall goddes, bicause they that are diparted and dulled with death, should woorthily be crowned with a dulling flower.’ The Furies, vengeful spirits of the underworld in Greek mythology, wore daffodils in their tangled hair and used them to stupefy their victims.”

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

“Daffodils have been part of my life for as long as I can remember. Born in Hampshire’s New Forest my roots lie deep in the rich soil of southern England, yet my childhood was one of perpetual motion as my family moved from one home to another, prompted by advances in my father’s career.

“Across my ever-changing world daffodils became a constant. As each winter receded they appeared anew, a radiant signal that the bleakest English season was done with and the New Year truly on its way. By the time I hit my teens my family’s travelling halted, and we settled in the countryside a few miles from a Thames Valley village. My new home was surrounded by towering woodland dissected by pathways that had been trod for centuries, dappled meadows carpeted all-too-briefly with bluebells — and each spring what felt like acres of drifting daffodils….

“As one daffodil variety melted away another materialised to take its place, a rhythmic dance through the spring chill that lasted, it seemed to my young mind, for ages. The blossoms were beautiful, injecting a lifeblood of colour into the drained winter landscape and we took them for granted. After all, they were simply daffodils.”


We’re going to spend the month of April looking at photos of daffodils. How great is that?

I was originally planning to title this post series “A Month of Daffodils” — then realized I had EXACTLY 144 images processed up and ready to share, hence the current title: “Twelve Dozen Daffodils.” I like catchy titles, often leaning towards alliteration whenever I can — but “twelve dozen” seems compelling enough, especially if you imagine someone dropping 144 daffodils on your front porch, split into bunches every few days for a month.

I took the photos during several recent trips to Oakland Cemetery’s Gardens, and many of them were taken using a neutral density filter as I described previously in Early Spring Hellebores (1 of 2). The first five and next three images below show how that filter enables me to play with lighting and highlights: in the first five, the scene is dark overall but the flowers take on a distinct glow; and in the next three, the filter picks up similarly glowful highlighting on the green leaves in the background. The filter seems especially good at capturing highlights while accentuating the saturation of yellows, oranges, and greens, though it will be interesting to see — as the reds, purples, and blues of flowers like irises start appearing — what fun can be had with other colors.

Once upon a time a couple of years ago, I decided that I would try to consistently create eight blog posts a month. Why eight, you ask? Well, my original thinking on that was pretty simple: less than eight was not enough, but more than eight was too many. With the exception of December and my Days-to-Christmas posts, I’ve stuck with that number every month since June 2022, because it gives me time to take and post-process the photos, but more importantly gives me time to do some research on the plants I’m photographing. While I could surely post a couple of wordless photos a day and garner tons more blog traffic, just posting photos (not that there’s anything wrong with that) isn’t compelling enough to me, and I get a lot of pleasure out of the puzzling and stewing about plant histories and botany that I take on between photo-shoots.

With that in mind, we’re going to work through a couple of books about daffodils along with these posts…

Daffodil: Biography of a Flower by Helen O’Neill
Daffodil: The Remarkable Story of the World’s Most Popular Spring Flower by Noel Kingsbury

… and write some to-be-determined somethings about what we learn. I’ve had the second book for a while, and just bought the first one, and stuck a few sample quotes from each up-top. Personally I’d like to read one called “Daffodil: The Autobiography of a Flower” — but so far haven’t found such a book. Nobody knows why.

Both books are good examples of ethnobotany — the study of relationships between human cultures and plants — with Kingsbury’s book (which I’ve quoted from before) taking a more scientific approach than O’Neill’s, which focuses more on the the daffodil’s cultural history. Well, at least that’s what ClaudeAI told me; I wouldn’t know yet because I haven’t done the reading, but — eeks! — I’ll need to do it soon!

Thanks for taking a look!

Fresh Spring Spirea

From “Spirea” in The Natural History of Wild Shrubs and Vines: Eastern and Central North America by Donald W. Stokes:

“At first glance, the Spireas look more like wildflowers than shrubs. Their thin stems, only two to three feet tall, are topped with clusters of small blossoms…. They grow alongside many of our common wildflowers, such as Milkweed, Queen Anne’s Lace, and Loosestrife, and when winter comes, all remain standing with attractive dried flowerheads. But if you went to collect these plants for an arrangement of ‘winter weeds,’ you would notice one significant difference in Spirea. While the stems of the wildflowers have all died, leaving only live roots to start next year’s growth, the stem of Spirea remains alive, as you can tell by scraping the bark and seeing green beneath….

“One winter, as I examined a few Spirea that were sticking up through the snow, I noticed that although their main stems were alive, the dried flowerheads at their tips were dead. I wondered how the plant would continue its growth next year. Would the flowerheads drop off? Where would new stems grow? The following spring, I returned to the Spirea and got my answer. The living buds just beneath the dead flowerhead were growing into new branches. The weight of these branches was making the original stem bend to a horizontal position, with its old flowerhead still at its tip. On older plants I found that this process repeated for several years, creating a jumble of horizontal stems with dead flowerheads at their tips, and young vertical branches growing from them….

“There are four common native species of Spirea in the East. Three of them — Meadowsweet, Broadleaved Meadowsweet, and Corymbed Spirea — usually have white flowers in either a flat or a cone-shaped cluster. The name Meadowsweet is given to these plants collectively because of the pleasant sweet smell of their blossoms and their habit of growing in moist, sunny places, especially old meadows….

“The fourth species of Spirea, Hardhack or Steeplebush, is quite different in appearance from the others. It has a thin spike of bright magenta flowers shaped like the spire of a church steeple. The name ‘hardhack’ refers to the difficulty early farmers had with cutting them in meadows. The plants were very persistent too, for even after they were cut, they could send up new stems from their spreading roots.”

From “Late March” in A Slender Volume of Poems, Essays and Stories by Sara Margaret and Mitchell Rhodes:

It’s just a little chilly. April’s promise fills the air.
For anyone who’s looking signs of spring are everywhere.

Sunshine brightly glinting on new magnolia leaves.
Irrepressible forsythia bounding forth in golden wreaths.

Pointed spears of green attending yellow daffodils.
Poeticus narcissus preening beside the prim jonquils.

Miniature grape hyacinths growing low in clumps of blue.
Vermillion quince in flower with a mockingbird or two.

On slender branches circlets of white spirea beguiles.
Periwinkle twinkles in shy lavender smiles….


Having photographed this collection of spirea in previous springs (see, for example, Bridal Wreath Spirea from last year), I can see how the growth of these shrubs matches the pattern described in the quotation from The Natural History of Wild Shrubs and Vines above. Where there were just a few spindly stems with sparse blooms last year or the year before, the plant has expanded to split off new branches and create clusters of flowers running their length.

The overall pattern of the plant’s growth reminds me of how spirea variants are often used in vases of flower arrangements to create contrasting lines and colors with other flowers. Yet I can also see that a vase full of long stems of spirea would be quite striking and stand on it’s own — with contrast provided by its dark red woody stems and tiny green leaves. The Photographer imagines snipping some of these stems and smuggling them home under his coat — but, alas, he behaves himself and is content with the photographs instead. Thieving has never been one of his skills, anyway; he would most likely get caught.

Thanks for taking a look!