Gateway to the Classics: Handbook of Nature Study: Cultivated Plants by Anna Botsford Comstock
Handbook of Nature Study: Cultivated Plants by  Anna Botsford Comstock

The Daffodils and Their Relatives

Teacher's Story

"Daffydown Dilly came up in the cold from the brown mold,

Although the March breezes blew keen in her face,

Although the white snow lay on many a place."

Thus, it is that Miss Warner's stanzas tell us the special reason we so love the daffodils. They bring the sunshine color to the sodden earth, when the sun is chary of his favors in our northern latitude; and the sight of the daffodils floods the spirit with a sense of sunlight.



The daffodils and their relatives, the jonquils and narcissus, are interesting when we stop to read their story in their form. The six segments of the perianth, or, as we would say, the three bright-colored sepals and the three inner petals of the flower, are different in shape; but they all look like petals and stand out in star-shape around the flaring end of the flower tube, which, because of its shape, is called the corona, or crown; however, it looks more like a stiff little petticoat extending out in the middle of the flower than it does like a crown. The crown is simply the widened end of the tube of the flower, as may be seen by opening a flower lengthwise; the six seeming petals will peel off the tube, showing that they are fastened to the outside of it. When we look down into the crown of one of these flowers, we see the long style with its three-lobed stigma pushing out beyond the anthers, which are pressed close about it at the throat of the tube; between each two anthers may be seen a little deep passage, through which the tongues of the moth or butterfly can be thrust to reach the nectar. In a tube, slit open, we can see the nectar at the very bottom of it, and it is sweet to the taste and has a decided flavor. In this open tube we may see that the filaments of the stamens are grown fast to the sides of the tube for much of their length, enough remaining free to press the anthers close to the style. The ovary of the pistil is a green swelling at the base of the tube; by cutting it across we can see it is triangular in outline, and has a little cavity in each angle large enough to hold two rows of the little, white, shining, unripe seeds. Each of these cavities is partitioned from the others by a green wall; the partition is marked by a suture on the outside of the seed-pod.

When the flower stalk first appears, it comes up like a sheathed sword, pointing toward the zenith, green, veined lengthwise, and with a noticeable thickening at each edge. As the petals grow, the sheath begins to round out; and then as if to confuse those people who are so stupid as to believe that plants do not really do things, the stiff stem at the base of the sheath bends at right angles. This brings a strain upon the sheath which bursts it, usually along the upper side, although sometimes it tears it off completely at the base. The slitted sheath, or spathe, hangs around the stem, wrinkled and parchment-like, very like the loose wrist of a suede glove. The stalk is a strong green tube; the leaves are fleshy and are grooved on the inner side, the groove being deep enough to clasp part way around the flower stem. The number of leaves varies with the variety, and they are usually as tall as the flower stalk. There is one flower on a stalk in the daffodils and the poet's narcissus, but the jonquils and paper-white narcissus have two or more flowers on the same stalk.


Daffodil showing detail of flower.

a. corona or crown;   b. sepals and petals forming perianth;   c. corolla tube;   d. ovary or seed-case;   e. sheath or spathe.

A bed should be prepared by digging deep and fertilizing with stable manure. The bulbs should be planted in September or early October, and should be from four to six inches apart, the upper end of the bulbs at least four inches below the surface of the soil. They should not be disturbed but allowed to occupy the bed for a number of years, or as long as they give plenty of flowers. As soon as the surface of the ground is frozen in the winter, the beds should be covered from four to six inches in depth with straw-mixed stable manure, which can be raked off very early in the spring.

The new bulbs are formed at the sides of the old one; for this reason the daffodils will remain permanently planted, and do not lift themselves out of the ground like the crocuses. The leaves of the plant should be allowed to stand as long as they will after the flowers have disappeared, so that they may furnish the bulbs with plenty of food for storing. The seeds should not be allowed to ripen, as it costs the plant too much energy and thus robs the bulbs. The flowers should be cut just as they are opening. Of the white varieties, the poet's narcissus is the most satisfactory, as it is very hardy and very pretty, its corona being a shallow, flaring, greenish yellow rosette with orange-red border, the anthers of its three longest stamens making a pretty center. No wonder Narcissus bent over the pool in joy at viewing himself, if he was as beautiful a man as the poet's narcissus is as a flower.


Paper-white narcissus.

Lesson CLI

Daffodils, Jonquils and Narcissus

Leading thought—The daffodil, jonquil and narcissus are very closely related, and quite similar. They all come from bulbs which should be planted in September; but after the first planting, they will flower on year after year, bringing much brightness to the gardens in the early spring.

Method—The flowers brought to school may be studied for form, and there should be a special study of the way the flower develops its seed, and how it is propagated by bulbs. The work should lead directly to an interest in the cultivation of the plants. In seedsmen's catalogues or other books, the children will find methods of planting and cultivating these flowers in cities. Daffodils are especially adapted for both window gardens and school gardens.


1. Note the shape of the flower. Has it any sepals? What do we call the flowers that have their sepals colored like petals, thus forming a part of the beauty of the flower? Can you see any difference in color, position and texture between the petals and sepals?

2. How do the petal-like parts of these flowers look? How many of them are there? Do they make the most showy part of the flower?

3. What does the central part of the flower look like? Why is it called the corona, or crown? Is it a part of the tube which joins the flower to the stem? Do the petals and sepals peel off this tube? Peel them off one flower, and see that the tube is shaped like a trumpet.

4. Look down into the crown of the flower and tell what you see. Can you see where the insect's tongue must go to reach the nectar?

5. Cut open a trumpet lengthwise to find where the nectar is. How far is it from the mouth of the tube? How long would the insect's tongue have to be to reach it? What insects have tongues as long as this?

6. In order to reach the nectar how would an insect become dusted with pollen? Are the stamens loose in the flower-tube? Is the pistil longer than the stamens? How many parts to the stigma? Can you see how the flowers are arranged so that insects can carry pollen from flower to flower?

7. What is the green swelling in the stem at the base of the trumpet? Is it connected with the style? Cut it across and describe what you see. How do the young seeds look and how are they arranged?

8. Where the flower stem joins the stalk, what do you see? What is this dry spathe there for? Are there one or more flower stems coming from this spathe?

9. Describe the flower stalk. Are the leaves wide or narrow? Are they as long as the flower stalk, are they flat, or are they grooved to fit around the flower stalk?

10. What are the differences between daffodils, jonquils and poet's narcissus? When should the bulbs for these flowers be planted? Will there be more bulbs formed around the one you plant? Will the same bulb ever send up flowers and leaves again? How do the bulbs divide to make new bulbs?

11. How should the bed for the bulbs be prepared? How near together should the bulbs be planted? How deep in the earth? How protect them in the North during the winter?

12. Why should you not cut the leaves off after the flowers have died? Why should you not let the seeds ripen? When should the flowers be cut for bouquets? Who was Narcissus, and why should these early spring flowers be named after him?

Supplementary reading—Green Things Growing, Mulock; The Daffodils, Wordsworth; The Story of Narcissus, Child's Study of the Classics; Mary's Garden, Duncan, Chapters XXVI and XXVII.

"I emphatically deny the common notion that the farm boy's life is drudgery. Much of the work is laborious, and this it shares with all work that is productive; for the easier the job the less it is worth doing. But every piece of farm work is also an attempt to solve a problem, and therefore it should have its intellectual interest; and the problems are as many as the hours of the day and as varied as the face of nature.

It needs but the informing of the mind and the quickening of the imagination to raise any constructive work above the level of drudgery. It is not mere dull work to follow the plow—I have followed it day after day—if one is conscious of all the myriad forces that are set at work by the breaking of the furrow; and there is always the landscape, the free fields, the clean soil, the rain, the promise of the crops. Of all men's labor, the farmer's is the most creative.

I cannot help wondering why it is that men will eagerly seek work in the grease and grime of a noisy factory, but will recoil at what they call the dirty work of the farm. So much are we yet bound by tradition!"

L. H. Bailey.

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