Floral Folklore: The Meaning of Daffodils

Floral Folklore: The Meaning of Daffodils

Bright and cheerful daffodils are the birth flower of anyone born in March. Little trumpets of sunshine that herald the true start of spring, it's a rare person who doesn't feel a burst of positivity when sighting the first daffodil of the year. But do you know the myths, folklore and artistic creations that have been inspired by this common flower – and its secret meanings too?


Daffodil image by Zoe Schaeffer

3 Reasons to Love Daffodils

1. Daffodils are a sign of hope for many and a symbol used by many cancer charities across the world, as well as Marie Curie charity's annual Great Daffodil Appeal.

2. Daffodils are a reliable plant to grow in your garden, guaranteeing smiles every spring. In fact, they can flower for decades and, in some places, have been known to bloom for over 100 years. 

3. There are over 36 species and 27,000 cultivated varieties of daffodil, including big bright yellow cups, dainty small cups and frilly double flowers. You can also find them in white, orange and pale pink, but we love yellow best. (image: Zoe Schaeffer)


A Flower With Mythological Roots

Echo and Narcissus by Waterhouse on Flora Botanica Blog

If you're a keen gardener, you'll know that the botanical name for daffodil is narcissus. It's linked to the Greek myth about a young man of the same name who falls in love with his own reflection, eventually wasting away at the pool where he stares at himself. It's said that, after his death, the Gods made a narcissus grow in his place. (image: Echo and Narcissus by John William Waterhouse, 1903

Another Greek myth tells that Persephone was picking daffodils when Hades whisked her away to the underworld. The flower was said to grow along the river Styx down there. 

Its name may have come from Greek mythology, but it was the Romans who brought most daffodil species over to Britain. Some think that the soldiers nibbled on the bulb for pain relief. However, daffodils are poisonous – especially the leaves and bulb – so perhaps not the best idea. 

For this reason and because of its links with the underworld and Narcissus, in some cultures, daffodils were once associated with death. The Ancient Greeks and Romans often planted them near graves, and daffodil bulbs and wreaths have been found in Ancient Egyptian tombs.

Wild Daffodil by mariluz picardo garrido

We did have our own native daffodil species before the Romans arrived. Pretty wild daffodils (Narcissus pseudonarcissus) are small with creamy petals and delicate frilly trumpets in a deeper yellow, as shown on the right (image: Mariluz Picardo Garrido)

They are often called 'Lent lilies' or 'Easter Bells' for the time of the year they bloom. They still grow in meadows and ancient woodland across the UK and if you want to see them in abundance, check out the 'Golden Triangle' in Gloucestershire and Herefordshire. 


Daffodil Folklore Around the World

Fairy looking at Daffodils artist unknown Image rawpixelIn the west we associate daffodils with spring and Easter, but in the east, daffodils are linked to the Chinese New Year. If they bloom in time for the celebrations, it signifies an extra-lucky and prosperous year ahead – possibly because there's an old Chinese myth about a fairy who gifts a daffodil to a poor young man whose fortunes then change for the better.

The flower there has also been associated with a water goddess, as it often grows near rivers, and a Confucian scholar described it as a "fairy with yellow hats and green sleeves". (image left: rawpixel)

In Wales, folk used to say that the first person to spot the first daffodil of the year would be showered with luck, possibly silver, for the rest of the year. 

The daffodil symbolises luck in many cultures but, somewhere along the line someone decided that giving a single daffodil is bad luck, so make sure it's a bunch! 

The Flower that Inspires Poets, Writers and Artists

Host of Daffodils Yoksel Zoo Unsplash

Though daffodils were popular in Tudor and Elizabethan gardens, they fell out of favour for a while. It took some enthusiastic Victorian gardeners and romantic poets to bring them back into vogue. (image by Yoksel Zok)

Everyone is familiar with William Wordsworth's homage to daffodils, the poem I Wandered Lonely as a Cloudbut you may not know that it was inspired by his sister Dorothy's journal entry about their walk together. Wordsworth wasn't the first to praise 'golden daffodils'. 

In Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale, he wrote:

Daffodils come before the swallows dare, and take the winds of March with beauty.

The poet Charles Heath sums up the hope daffodils bring with the lines:

I am always glad when daffodils
Lift up their golden horn,
To wake a day whose waking fills
With mellowness the morn,
And lures the southwinds through the air
To bear away my winter's care.

In a similar vein, here's A.A. Milne's poem Daffodowndilly (a folk name for the flower):

She wore her yellow sun-bonnet,
She wore her greenest gown;
She turned to the south wind
And curtsied up and down.
She turned to the sunlight
And shook her yellow head,
And whispered to her neighbour:
"Winter is dead".

John Singer Sargent Still Life with Daffodils

Best of all, we like that Oscar Wilde, in his poem The Garden of Eros, called the daffodil 'that love-child of the Spring' and described its petals as 'gilded doors'.

Daffodils have inspired artists equally. From John Singer Sargent's Still Life with Daffodils (shown left) to Berthe Morisot's impressionistic Daffodils.

However, probably the most timely daffodils were given to us by David Hockney during the covid lockdown. He gave his digitally-produced picture the title, 'Do remember they can't cancel the spring'. You can see it here.

Our favourite daffodils, of course, appear in our March Birth Flower art print, which reworks an original vintage watercolour painting by botanical artist Pierre Joseph Redouté, as well as our stunning Daffodil art print by Japanese floral woodblock artist, Tanigami Konan (shown below). Both are available now in Flora Botanica Store, framed or unframed.

We recently wrote about Tanigami Konan and his beautiful flower prints here. 

Daffodils art print by Tanigamo Konan Japanese woodblock art on Flora Botanica Store

Daffodil Symbolism in Victorian Floriography

Daffodils image rawpixel

As far as the Victorians were concerned, daffodils had a confusingly mixed bag of meanings – almost as many meanings as there are varieties! (image: rawpixel)

Depending on which floriography book you read (and there were many at that time), its symbolism varied wildly. Here's a round-up:

  • Wild Daffodil – Regard, false hope, disdain or unrequited love
  • Jonquil (these have slimmer leaves than most daffodils and are far more perfumed) – Desire or I desire a return of affection  
  • Narcissus – Self love (this meaning was no doubt influenced by the Greek myth)

Let's hope that any courting couples who sent each other wild daffodils were reading from the same floriography book or there could have been a great deal of disappointment. 

Flora Botanica's Meaning of Daffodils

Daffodil Art print March Birth Flower poster design by Flora Botanica Store

Leafing through the original Victorian floriography books, one thing is certain, the wild daffodil and daffodils in general seem to be widely recognised as a symbol of regard or respect, so that's why we selected this character trait for our March birth flower print (shown right). 

It was also clear that, around the world, the sight of daffodils after a long winter brings unadulterated joy to us all.

Finally, when we found out that daffodils can flower for up to 100 years, 'resilience' was the first word that sprang to mind. In fact, in China, daffodils are also known as 'immortal flowers'. So there we have the three meanings featured on our original Daffodil art print:

  • Joy
  • Resilience
  • Respect

But if floriography isn't for you, then you can always opt for our personalised Daffodil art print – and make it extra special for the recipient. We're sure they'll be just as happy to see it as the first daffodils in bloom.

To conclude this ode to that love-child of spring, we'll leave with you these interesting facts...

10 Facts About Daffodils

Poet's Narcissus by Hannah Overbeck

  1. The name narcissus is thought to come from the word narkissos, as the plant has narcotic properties, or from the name for its scent: narkao. In France, the oil of heavily scented narcissus flowers is used in perfume making. (image: Poet's Narcissus by Hannah Borger Overbeck)
  2. The UK – especially the Isles of Scilly and Cornwall – grows and imports more daffodils than any other country in the world.
  3. In Cornwall, daffodil-picking season used to be known as the 'golden harvest' and there were special daffodil trains transporting the flowers to London markets.
  4. The first written record of a daffodil was by Greek botanist and philosopher Theophrastus in 300BC.
  5. Ever wondered why there are so many daffodils on roadside verges? During World War II, there was a big push for farmers to use their land for food production, so daffodil fields were dug up and the bulbs flung to the edges of fields, where they made a quick comeback.
  6. The daffodil has been the national flower of Wales since the 19th century and they are often worn on St David's Day (1st March).
  7. The Roman poet Ovid obviously didn't know the plant was poisonous. He wrote a book on beauty for women, recommending powdered daffodil bulbs as a cosmetic.
  8. However, scientists have discovered that daffodils grown at high altitudes contain a compound that can treat Alzheimers
  9. The Ledbury and Gloucester Railway was known as the Daffodil Line as it passed through some of the best daff displays in the UK. Sadly it closed in the 1960s, but locals have started a Daffodil Line bus route instead.
  10. Though we're used to planting bulbs, wild daffodils spring up from seed and it takes 4 to 7 years for them to flower.

All good things come to those who wait!

Bloom where you are planted this month,

Flora B x




Back to blog