Perhaps because of the mild winter, the yellow explosion of daffodils (Narcissus) seems to have come slightly earlier than usual this year, adding garish colour to public parks, roadside verges, roundabouts and central reservations, cheerfully glinting in herbaceous borders, pots and windowboxes, and forming spectacular blankets drifting across glades and grasslands.
As is more or less obligatory for any self-respecting Welsh person, I have of course given the daffodil a place in my garden: a couple of clumps of dwarf varieties that virtually look after themselves while they gradually spread where they will. There are more narcissi in UK gardens than any other flowering plant, and that popularity is based as much on their idiot-proof simplicity to grow as on their vivid colour and reassuring augury of spring. They’re indestructible; just leave the leaves alone after the flowers fade, letting them wither and wilt rather than cutting them off, and that’s about it, bar the very rare need to water them in extreme drought. For me, the daff’s very ubiquity is its drawback – given the copper-bottomed rule of human affairs that anything extremely popular is invariably rubbish. That isn’t ‘elitism’, incidentally, any more than, say, not reading the Sun or not eating Big Macs would be elitism: it’s just taste and discernment. As waspish American writer HL Mencken (1880-1956) put it, “nobody ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the public”. There’s no avoiding the conclusion that daffodil enthusiasts are like the Amazonian tribe that surrendered their ancestral lands and abandoned thousands of years of culture in return for a handful of worthless Coca-Cola bottle-tops – they were shiny and sparkling, see.
For a couple of reasons, I also have a small problem with the daffodil’s emblematic status as the ‘national flower of Wales’. Firstly, there is nothing specific to Wales about the plant. Native to southern Europe, it became naturalised across the whole continent and was growing wild in lowland Wales by Roman times. Around the 5th/6th centuries the tough bulb was familiar enough here to be given the name cenhinen Bedr (St Peter’s leek), because its leaves resembled those of the pungent edible vegetable – a member of the completely unrelated onion family. As for the Bedr/Peter reference, the precise reason why it was felt appropriate to associate the early Christian with daffodils has been lost in the mists of time, although it was common practice to invoke the beatified when naming natural phenomena in the Welsh ‘age of saints’. It wasn’t until the 16th century that large-scale cultivation of daffodils for commercial purposes began in the Netherlands, and they were not a widespread garden plant in Wales until the 19th century. So the daffodil has no more relevance to Wales than it does to anywhere else in Europe, and often much less. Our adjacent noisy neighbour England, for instance, could make greater claims to a special relationship with the daffodil by dint of the single most famous poem in the English language being all about the bloody things: I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud by William Wordsworth (1770-1850). As it turned out, they chose rose – the pricks. No, if Wales is to have a ‘national flower’ it should surely be an indigenous plant unique to Wales, such as the Snowdon lily, brwynddail y mynydd (Gagea serotina), the Welsh poppy, pabi melyn (Meconopsis cambrica), or even the Welsh hawkweed, llysiau’r hebog (Hieracium cambricum).
Secondly, the adoption of the daffodil as a Welsh symbol has no historic or cultural basis. It was actually the confusion of the shared word for daffodil and leek, cenhinen, that brought about the plant’s adoption. The leek (Allium ampeloprasum) has been indelibly associated with Wales since the green and white stalks were distributed to Welshmen during a 7th century battle with the Saxons, to enable them to distinguish friend from foe, while wearing a leek on St David’s Day is an abiding 1,000-year-old Welsh tradition. Moreover it’s a native plant integral to Welsh cuisine – the antithesis of the highly toxic daffodil which can kill if eaten. However, in the late 19th century a handful of uptight social climbers attempting to rebrand Wales as genteel and anglo-friendly started agitating for the daffodil to replace the leek as the emblem of Wales, purely because it was more decorative and aesthetic and less smelly and proletarian. To boost their case, it was argued that the daffodil was the emblem intended all along – a self-evident nonsense since the original mistake was to name the daffodil after the leek, not vice-versa. That didn’t stop David Lloyd George (1863-1945), Liberal politician and the British establishment’s pet Welshman, from insisting that the daffodil rather than the leek should take centre stage at the 1911 Investiture of Edward Saxe-Coburg Gotha (1894-1972) as ‘Prince of Wales’ at Caernarfon Castle. Contemptuously chucking a distracting circus at the masses, the treacherous Lloyd George invented a ludicrous mock-medieval ceremony to mark the conquest and subjugation of Wales, and the blood-soaked Castle walls were duly drenched in daffs. Edward, of course, would go on to become king of England for just 11 months in 1936 before he quit to spend a useless life in the lap of luxury as a vacuous spendthrift, snob and fascist sympathiser, but Lloyd George wasn’t to know that. In a way the Old Goat’s dumb daffodil campaign worked, because its popularity as an alternative to the leek as national emblem has only increased in the subsequent century. Prissy pretension and PR puffery is gradually ousting idiosyncrasy, authenticity and earthiness. What a shame, and yet how apt.
Now the yellow peril is manifest everywhere and in every conceivable format, utilised as an all-purpose logo by a range of sports clubs, charities, health campaigns and corporations, in Wales and beyond, to vaguely suggest niceness, approachability, hope and, indeed, love. And the degeneration of the daff into a badge of banality has truly arrived at the bottom of the barrel with those two annoying cartoon Welshwomen in daffodil hats who seem to be a mandatory feature of BBC rugby coverage. As ever, overkill has destroyed what once delighted; a glut will always eventually nauseate. Even Narcissus himself got sick of looking at his own reflection. Call me jaundiced, but I, for one, shall be wearing a leek at the St David’s Day Parade* in Cardiff this Friday.
*NOTE Assemble 11.30 City Hall. Parade to The Hayes starts 12.30.
Thank you Dic for that historical context. Although I consider myself fairly well educated (and especially after reading your book on the biography of Cardiff) I was unaware of the colonial associations with the daffodil.
Diolch Yn fawr
Bang on the nail, as usual.