The Narcissus Flower: Origins, Meaning, Symbolism, Colors, and Care Tips.
Narcissus flowers are more commonly known as daffodils or jonquils, though these names technically refer to two distinct species of the genus. Most varieties of Narcissi are hardy perennials that re-emerge from dormant bulbs every spring. This guide details everything you need to know about the humble flower, including their history & origins, narcissus flower meaning, symbolism, and cultural significance, in addition to our top tips for how-to-grow and how-to-care for narcissus flowers at home. Let’s go!
Table of contents
- The Narcissus Flower (origins, history, botanical characteristics)
- Popular Types of Narcissus Flowers
- Uses and Benefits of Narcissus Flowers
- Narcissus Flower Meaning
- Narcissus Flower Symbolism and Colors (in Ancient Egypt, Art, Literature, and Gifting)
- How to Grow Narcissus Flowers at Home
- How to Care for Narcissus Flowers
About Narcissus Flowers
Origin and history of Narcissus flowers
Narcissi are native to Southern Europe and Western Africa, growing predominantly in meadows and wooded areas. However, the plant’s center of origin is in the Western Mediterranean, or more specifically, the Iberian Peninsula.
From as early as 300BC Narcissus flowers have been a popular feature in ornamental gardens and have been cultivated and cross-bred widely since that time. Today, Spain has the broadest known variety of Narcissus plant species in the world.
Narcissus Flower Species and Botanical Characteristics
Narcissus flowers are a member of the amaryllis plant family (Amaryllidaceae). They have a central trumpet-shaped corona surrounded by six petals. The blossoms sit atop a single stem, surrounded by flat leaves that grow from the plant’s base and can reach up to one meter in height.
Most Narcissi are yellow or white in color, though orange and pink are also seen in some common garden varieties. The trumpet part of the flower sometimes differs in color from the surrounding petals.
Popular Types of Narcissus flowers
Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus originally identified six species of Narcissus flower in his work Species Plantarum, in 1753.
Dozens more species and sub-species have since been acknowledged but due to varying expert opinions on what qualifies as a ‘species’, there is no universal consensus as to precisely how many species of the plant exist.
Estimates vary from as little as 16 and as many as 160 different species. The Encyclopedia Britannica lists around 40 known and widely accepted species.
Daffodils are arguably the most recognizable flower in the Narcissus genus. The botanical name “daffodil” only dates back to the 1500s, prior to which time these flowers were called “Affodyle”, which means “that which comes early” in old English. The full Latin name for the common wild daffodil is Narcissus pseudonarcissus.
Other popular varieties include:
- Jonquils or Rush Daffodils (N. jonquilla)
- Poet’s Narcissus (N. poeticus)
- Paperwhite Narcissus (N. papyraceus)
- Angel’s tears (N. triandrus)
- Petticoat daffodil (N. bulbocodium)
Narcissus Flower Uses and Benefits
Narcissus flowers are primarily cultivated for ornamental purposes, though they have been used in a variety of other ways throughout human history. Most species of Narcissus flower have a fragrance powerful enough to induce headaches in some people when too much of their scent is inhaled.
This intense fragrance, coupled with cheerful symbolism, could be the reason that Narcissus flowers are a popular gift for birthdays and other special occasions. Jonquils (N. jonquilla) are one of the more fragrant members of the Narcissi genus and as such, are frequently used in perfume manufacturing.
Narcissus Flower Uses in Medicine
Narcissus flowers are not suitable for consumption as they contain a variety of protective alkaline compounds which can be poisonous when ingested. Though, many of these alkaloids have therapeutic applications and have been used in traditional medicine for thousands of years.
Throughout history, Narcissus-derived compounds were frequently used as an emetic (a medicine to induce vomiting) and a cathartic (a treatment for constipation). The widely used Alzheimer’s drug Galantamine is derived from Alkaloid extracts found in several species of Narcissi and is still widely used today.
Furthermore, an isolate called Narciclasine taken from daffodil bulbs has been the ongoing focus of several new medical studies, as initial results suggest it could be effective in the treatment of breast cancer.
Despite these positive applications, the Narcissus flower’s medicinal properties have not always been wielded so wisely. Ancient Roman soldiers, who are believed to be responsible for Narcissi being introduced to the British Isles, thought that daffodil sap had healing properties that could help wounded soldiers on the battlefield. In fact, the toxic nature of daffodil sap meant that it did quite the opposite. Not only did it fail to heal wounds, it actively irritated the Roman soldiers’ skin.
Narcissus Flower Meaning
In British culture, wild daffodils are also known as “Lent Lilies” as they typically bloom shortly after Ash Wednesday and die off around Easter. Worldwide Christian culture also considers the narcissus flower meaning to have a religious significance, as it is said the very first flower bloomed to comfort Jesus on the night of The Last Supper.
Daffodils are the national flower of Wales and are often featured on royal emblems alongside the English Tudor rose, the Scottish thistle, and the Irish shamrock. According to Welsh folklore, the person who spots the first daffodil bloom of spring will be blessed with wealth and good fortune for the following year.
Narcissus flowers also feature in Chinese folklore, where it is said that a daffodil blooming at home on the New Year brings good luck to the household.
Narcissus Flower Meaning & Origins in Ancient Greek Mythology
Ancient Greek mythology tells how Narcissus flowers came into existence. According to the story Narcissus was the beautiful yet vain son of the nymph Leriope and Cephissus, God of the River.
The myth tells that Narcissus was wondering in the woods when the mountain nymph Echo became captivated by his good looks and fell in love with him. Breaking the nymph’s heart by failing to return her affections, the young man cursed her to roam the woods until all that remained was the sound of her voice. Narcissus was punished by the Goddess Nemesis, who lured him to a stream where he became transfixed by his own reflection in the water. Unable to tear himself away, Narcissus grew weary, fell into the stream, and drowned. Daffodils are said to grow in abundance on riverbanks and streams, as this is where Narcissus fell. The myth also suggests that the curved stem and dipped blossom of the daffodil represents Narcissus himself, mesmerized by his image in the water.
An ancient Greek myth about Hades also mentions Narcissus flowers. According to this story, Zeus’s daughter Persephone was captured by the god of the underworld while in the Elysian Fields picking daffodils. It is possibly as a result of this myth that daffodils are commonly associated with death and the afterlife, frequently featuring in funeral wreaths, and planted around graves to this day.
Though the Ancient Greek stories of Narcissus and Persephone have undeniably sinister undertones, daffodils and other species of Narcissi are rich with positive symbolism. As one of the first flowers to appear in early spring, the daffodil has come to be known as a symbol of new life, renewal, and new beginnings.
Narcissus Flower Symbolism and Colors
Most species of Narcissus flower are yellow, white, or a combination of the two. Many people choose to grow daffodils, or offer them as gifts, due to the meanings associated with their distinctive, vibrant colors.
For instance, it is thought that yellow narcissus flowers symbolize positive energy, happiness, and friendship, which is perhaps why daffodils are a popular gift for friends and coworkers but would not necessarily be considered appropriate for a lover or spouse.
The color white is widely associated with peace, purity, innocence, and spirituality. This could be the reason that white flowers so often feature at weddings and religious events. The prevalence of white Narcissi perhaps lends additional weight to the idea that they have religious significance, especially in relation to Christianity and the resurrection of Jesus.
Gifting Narcissus flowers
The Narcissus flower’s positive symbolism makes it an excellent choice of gift for any occasion, especially when the person gifting the bouquet intends to send wishes of happiness and good fortune.
Anybody choosing to send daffodils as a gift should always take care to send them in a bunch, as a single daffodil is thought to be an omen of bad fortune. Despite this, and rather interestingly, Prince Charles of England is traditionally paid a single daffodil each year as rent for the Island of Scilly.
Daffodils are traditionally given to celebrate a tenth wedding anniversary. Though, they are not recommended for use in flower displays at weddings. The Ancient Greek myth of Narcissus’ self-worship gave rise to a common belief that daffodils at a wedding could condemn the bride to a lifetime of vanity and an unhappy marriage.
Daffodils are also a popular choice of gift for many birthdays, and they are the official birth flower for March.
Narcissus Flowers in Art and Literature
Narcissus flower meaning is covered extensively in the arts and is one of the most culturally celebrated flowers, especially in British literature.
Perhaps the most famous example of this would be Williams Wordsworth’s “I wandered lonely as a cloud”, in which the poet pays tribute to “a host of golden daffodils”.
Narcissus flowers are also a common feature in visual art throughout history. Notable paintings include Vincent van Gogh’s Bowl with Daffodils, and Salvador Dali’s Metamorphosis of Narcissus, a famous surrealist representation of the Greek mythological character Narcissus’ demise.
However, daffodils and other species of Narcissus flower were celebrated in visual art long before the great artists of the past few centuries. One of the earliest known instances of art featuring Narcissus flowers is a mural discovered on the excavated wall of a building in Pompeii, which had been buried and preserved in volcanic ash.
How to Grow Narcissus Flowers at Home
According to the Royal Horticultural Society, daffodils and other species of Narcissi grow comfortably in containers, flower beds, and grassy areas.
Narcissus flowers can be purchased ready-potted in the spring or as dry bulbs in the late summer. Bulbs should be planted in the fall for blooming the following spring, as the colder months allow for proper root development and hardier plants.
When purchasing bulbs, buyers should opt for the largest bulbs and take care to avoid any that are soft or showing signs of mold.
How to Plant Narcissus flowers
When choosing an appropriate spot for your plants, keep in mind that Narcissus flowers prefer partial or full sun and will fair best in well-drained soil.
Most common species grow to around 12 inches tall, though some can reach up to 16 inches. The spread of an individual Narcissus plant varies quite considerable from one species to the next. To ensure plants have enough space to flourish, growers should check the planting and care instructions for the variety they have chosen.
To give Narcissus bulbs the greatest chance of success, be sure to remove any weeds from the soil before digging it through with plenty of organic matter.
Daffodils and other Narcissi are remarkably easy to plant and grow. For an expressive display, simply plant bulbs in a relatively close formation at the equivalent depth of roughly three bulbs.
How to Care for Narcissus Flower
Growers should be careful not to overwater Narcissus plants. The bulbs are susceptible to rotting in soil that is too wet. Keep in mind that containers will need watering more regularly than beds, as they will drain and dry out faster. The bulbs themselves should be watered after planting if the weather is dry but will need no further attention over the winter months, providing they have been planted in grass or a bed.
Most Narcissus plants do not need to be fed the first year after planting. However, they may benefit from a potassium-rich fertilizer in subsequent years, especially if wilting or stunted growth is observed. Be sure to deadhead Narcissus flowers when the blossoms die, to maximize growth and flowering.
Narcissus Flower Pests and Diseases
While Narcissus flowers are generally easy to keep healthy, growers should be aware of the following diseases and pests:
- Snails and slugs
- Narcissus bulb fly
- Viruses such as the Narcissus yellow stripe virus
Pests can be controlled with chemical solutions available from most gardening stores, though yellow stripe virus is unfortunately not treatable. Daffodils and other species of Narcissus tend to last well when cut and make for stunning ornamental displays. Though it is important to note that they should not be arranged in a vase with other types of flower, as their sap is toxic and can kill other plants.
Narcissus flowers are a family of plants that have taken pride of place in human culture for many thousands of years. Besides their obvious aesthetic appeal, Narcissi benefit from hardy constitutions that allow them to grow and flourish in most environments. As such, daffodils and other Narcissus flower species make the perfect addition to any garden, for novice and experienced growers alike.