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 during my childhood 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 on its way. By 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.
My parents had inherited a remarkable landscape where, each spring, a multitude of daffodils bloomed in flashes, clumps and languid drifts. My mother was entranced. On a whim she severed the stems of some particularly fine specimens and entered them in the village show.
She returned home with prize certificates for best blooms and a prestigious silver cup. The next year she entered another batch. The same thing happened again.
My mother had by now picked up some tricks when it came to exhibiting. She found that the best times to pick her flowers were in the morning or late afternoon. Whether she used a knife to cut the stems or flexed them hard until they snapped, she held the broken ends in her hand to stop the sap running out. She kept a bucket of water handy and popped each daffodil in as quickly as she could.
Critically, she honed her sense of which blooms to select, how to sidestep pre-show stem and petal stress, and when to fire up her hairdryer to coax stubborn buds into opening in time for their big moment.
Curiosity gnawed away at her. Of what did her daffodil menagerie really comprise? She began cataloguing them, drawing reference sketches of what seemed to be dozens of handsome, olde worlde varieties, and she even invited a ‘bulb hunter’ to visit, a horticulturalist who sporadically spent time touring out-of-the-way private gardens in the hope that they might contain some vintage cultivars his commercial collection lacked.
On a clear spring morning in 2006 a plant expert studiously inventoried my mother’s daffodils, identifying the different heritage varieties in bloom that day with vintage names such as ‘Victoria’, ‘Empress’, ‘Bath’s Flame’, ‘Sunrise’ and ‘Star’. He dropped tantalising snippets of information about long-dead breeders, alluring titbits about a mysterious, apparently ancient daffodil world.
It was then that I absorbed the fact that the daffodil is not one flower but many. Ours blossomed in a prismatic kaleidoscope of colours from tissue paper white to the deepest blood orange and in a melange of forms and sizes.
Some were elfin, others giants brandishing flowers that ranged in shape from classic golden trumpets to the creamy stars with twisting petals and tiny butter-lemon cups of Narcissus poeticus. The blossoms were beautiful, injecting a life blood of colour into the drained winter landscape and we took them for granted. After all, they were simply daffodils.
As an adult I transplanted myself to Sydney on Australia’s east coast, a place where parrots wheel about like rambunctious toddlers, fruit bats are the size of pussycats and the indigenous foliage appeared – to my eye at least – alien indeed.
Yet cut branches of daffodils appeared in flower shop displays early each spring and daffodils scattered across gardens in this arid continent’s cooler regions. They, like me, could not be called native yet clearly felt at home.
I lived in Sydney for decades and acclimatised completely, or so I thought. In late 2008 the opportunity arose to move back to Europe for six months and take up an Australia Council literacy residency in a Paris apartment called the Keesing Studio. My partner and I packed our warmest clothes and moved into the cosy atelier on the Right Bank of the River Seine.
It was early February and Paris was at its most desolate, winter having drained colour from the city. Impulse drove me to a garden store where I bought window boxes, potting mixture and dozens of miniature daffodil bulbs. I planted the little zombies as deep as the window boxes would allow, fired up my computer and immersed myself in work.
Gradually the plants emerged from the chilled soil, their razor-sharp leaves slicing through the air before their stems budded and burst into bright yellow flowers that faced down the end of winter and danced with the spring breeze.
At the end of my Parisian stay I cleared out my window boxes, brushed the soil from the bulbs and sealed them inside a large, white envelope which I stowed away in a drawer. That is where Sophie Masson, a French-Australian children’s author, found them at the beginning of her winter Keesing Studio stay. Delighted, she told me she replanted the bulbs. They made her feel connected with the frozen city and filled her with reassurance that whatever else might happen, spring, and the blossoms, would come.
Later the same year in Sydney, I received the shock diagnosis of breast cancer. Emotionally my world froze in the face of one of the most witheringly hot summers I had ever experienced. I underwent surgeries and embarked on long rounds of chemotherapy, radiotherapy and finally hormone treatments. As my cancer-fighting regime progressed and I became weaker, in the Northern Hemisphere winter gave way to spring. Across my parents’ garden the daffodil army mustered and bloomed.
My brother started photographing the daffodils and sending me his glorious pictures. His intention was to convey a message of hope, to help me realise the hard times would pass and that life would again be bright. He was not the only person to use the daffodil as emissary. A friend in Melbourne who had herself beaten cancer posted me a sweet package of soft, cotton headscarves with a note, written in a card decorated by a lovely line-drawn image of Narcissus poeticus, letting me know I could ring any time.
Another well-wisher from America sent me words of cheer and a beautiful, pink, stylised daffodil pin.
My brother was right – the hard times did pass. As I began to recover I started thinking about the daffodil.
As my treatment ended, I grew stronger. I journeyed from Sydney to visit my parents without thinking too much about the daffodils. It was so late in the season that tight-knit clumps of bluebells had already begun emerging across the woodland floor. I went looking for daffodils even though I suspected it was far too late to find them.
The ground was still covered in thickly packed Narcissus leaves but the only flowers visible were dead, diseased or dying; what was left of them shrivelling back grotesquely into a swaying sea of green.
Yet one by one, as if from nowhere, a few late-flowering daffodils began to appear. I drifted further into the meadows and it was there that I saw it – a single, perfect Narcissus poeticus in bloom.
Instinctively I did what I used to do as a child. I dropped down onto my knees and then sank further until I was lying, front first, on the grassy earth. Around me Narcissus leaves and stems swayed to the breeze’s silent rhythm. Time slowed down, then seemed to freeze. The little daffodil faced me.
When I remember that moment I can smell Narcissus poeticus still.
© Helen O’Neill. This is an edited extract from Daffodil: Biography of a Flower (HarperCollins Publishers, 2016). Out now in print and ebook.