Nature Watch: April 2017

March 24 2017

I usually only write about local wildlife – countryside columns are available elsewhere. But as I write this the daffodils are just coming out and daffodils are too beautiful to ignore.

I usually only write about local wildlife – countryside columns are available elsewhere. But as I write this the daffodils are just coming out and daffodils are too beautiful to ignore. The big yellow cultivars still predominate in gardens, although many smaller and multi-headed species are now also grown. But we do have our own native daffodil in Britain: as Wordsworth found whilst wandering lonely as a cloud. But that was in the Lake District, I hear you cry! And so I come to my excuse for writing about them... 

Up until the 1880’s wild daffodils could still be found as near to the growing city of Bristol as Westbury-on-Trym and Filton Meads. But before those busy Victorians began building our houses in Bishopston and Redland I would hazard that breezy banks of dancing daffodils would have been found right here: this area is well within wild daffodil country. 

The daffodil is an enchanting flower, sweet and shy, turning its pretty face away. It is the national flower of Wales and the county flower of Gloucestershire. Daffodils are so well-beloved that a crowd, a host of poems have been written about them. They are strongly associated with Spring and Mothering Sunday, flowering in the Lenten period immediately before Easter so that they are also known as Lent Lillies. 

The delicate native species is paler than the typical garden variety and its flowers nod from stems no more than 10cm long. Yet sometimes it occurs in vast numbers that light the woods and meadows with sumptuous colour. It’s scientific name is Narcissus pseudonarcissus which seems rather odd but the name does not suggest that it’s not quite daffodilly enough – it is simply that it is different from the first named daffodil, Narcissus poeticus, the poet’s daffodil or pheasant’s eye. It is like that Narcissus, but not quite like it. The scientific name is taken from the Greek myth of Narcissus who fell in love with his own handsome reflection and died, from a broken heart, unable to tear himself away from the pool he was gazing into - we met a dog like that once!

There was a time when the wild daffodil was so common that large numbers of people would come to pick them in the western counties of England and in Wales. Londoners could take the “Daffodil Special” from Paddington to the fields of the “Golden Triangle” around Newent, where wild daffodils are common to this day.  Apparently the place in Westbury-on-Trym where the wild daffodils grew was “well known to the children of the period” but eventually the owner of the land had them all dug up in the mid 1880’s because he was “annoyed by folk coming to look for the flowers”! So, sadly, only their ghosts remain. We went to check - though I could almost imagine those smaller daffodils at the front of Cote House... This is my photograph of the living, from Gloucestershire.