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Narcissus pseudonarcissus (daffodil)

The daffodil is the 'golden' flower that inspired the poetry of William Wordsworth.

Head of a daffodil

Narcissus pseudonarcissus (daffodil)

Species information

Narcissus pseudonarcissus L.

daffodil, common daffodil, wild daffodil, Easter lily, Lent lily, downdilly.

Locally abundant and not considered to be threatened.

Woodlands, coppices, open meadows and grassy slopes.

The leaves, stems, seed pods and bulbs contain toxic alkaloids.

Taxonomy

Equisetopsida Magnoliidae Lilianae Asparagales Amaryllidaceae Genus: Narcissus

About this species

This well-known European flower brings bright swathes of colour to woods and grassland in early spring. Although the daffodil is sometimes known as the Easter lily, it is actually a member of the Amaryllidaceae (the plant family that also includes snowdrops) and hence is not a true lily.

The Latin name for daffodil is thought to have been inspired by Narcissus, who was a figure in Greek mythology said to have fallen in love with his reflection in a pool of water. The nodding head of the daffodil is said to represent Narcissus bending down and gazing at his reflection.

Narcissus

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Geography and distribution

Narcissus pseudonarcissus in Gloucestershire (Photo: Holly York)

The daffodil is native to western Europe, and is found in the area bounded by Portugal in the west, Germany in the east, and England and Wales to the north. It is not clear whether the species is truly native to Britain, or was introduced long ago and has become naturalised. It grows at altitudes from sea level to at least 1,500 m and is found growing wild in woods and grassland, and its many cultivars and hybrids are also widely cultivated in parks and gardens in most temperate regions.

Description

Narcissus pseudonarcissus is a bulbous perennial with upright, strap-like, grey-green leaves. The leaves arise from the base of the stem and are up to 35 cm long and 12 mm wide, with rounded tips. A single flower is produced at the tip of the flattened flower-stalk. The flower consists of a dark yellow 'trumpet' (corona) surrounded by a ring of 3 sepals and 3 petals (perianth), which are a lighter yellow. The flowers are up to 60 mm long and the 'trumpet' and ring of petals are roughly the same length. Flowers are usually produced from March to April. The daffodil is clump-forming, but reproduction is primarily via seed production.

Many species

The World Checklist of Monocotyledons currently recognizes 54 species of Narcissus, and numerous naturally occurring hybrids, but a recent study of daffodil DNA determined there are 36 species of Narcissus, divided into two subgenera (Hermione and Narcissus) and 11 sections. This study places N. pseudonarcissus in subgenus Narcissus, section Pseudonarcissi.

Threats and conservation

Narcissus pseudonarcissus in Gloucestershire (Photo: Holly York)

Narcissus pseudonarcissus is locally abundant in much of its native area and is not considered to be threatened, although four other species of Narcissus (N. bujei, N. alcaracensis, N. longispathus and N. radinganorum), all of which are native to Spain, are rated as Endangered by the IUCN.

Daffodils suffered a rapid decline in England and Wales in the mid 19th century, and are now considered rare in some areas, although they are often still abundant in areas where they remain. Daffodil populations are not harmed when flowers are picked, and they are able to grow in a wide variety of habitats, but population decline may have occurred in some areas as a result of the over-collection of bulbs or changes in land use and management.

Uses

Daffodils at Kew Gardens

Narcissus pseudonarcissus has been used to develop a large number of hybrids and cultivars. There are over 30,000 names in the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) Daffodil Registration Database, around 26,000 of which are considered to be unique cultivar names.

Modern daffodil cultivars are important ornamental crops; more daffodils are planted than any other perennial ornamental plant. Britain is the major grower of daffodils for both flowers and bulbs, which are also grown commercially in the Netherlands, United States, Canada, New Zealand and Australia.

Wild daffodils were picked in great numbers in Britain in the past, and in the 1930s there was even a 'Daffodil Special' train service run by the Great Western Railway to take Londoners to the Gloucestershire-Herefordshire border to admire and buy the flowers.

The national flower of Wales, traditionally worn on St David’s Day (1 March), is a daffodil, although it is thought by some to be the Tenby daffodil (N. pseudonarcissus subspecies major, also known by the synonym N. obvallaris), which is native to South Wales, rather than N. pseudonarcissus subspecies pseudonarcissus. The Tenby daffodil has small, uniformly yellow flowers and short stiff stems.

The leaves, stems, seed pods and bulbs contain toxic alkaloids. If eaten they can cause dizziness, abdominal pain, diarrhoea and occasionally also convulsions. The toxins are usually most concentrated in the bulbs. Rather surprisingly, daffodil bulbs have been eaten on occasion after being mistaken for onions. The sap can cause dermatitis, and the leaves are poisonous to livestock.

Millennium Seed Bank: Seed storage

Kew's Millennium Seed Bank Partnership aims to save plant life world wide, focusing on plants under threat and those of most use in the future. Seeds are dried, packaged and stored at a sub-zero temperature in our seed bank vault.

Description of seeds: Average 1,000 seed weight = 5.32 g.
Number of seed collections stored in the Millennium Seed Bank: Four.

Cultivation

Dafodils at Kew Gardens

Propagation of daffodils at Kew is normally carried out by dividing clumps where drifts of plants have become dense. The bulbs taken out are used to bulk up areas where daffodils are thinly distributed, or to create new plantings.

Daffodils have also been propagated from seed at Kew. The seeds are collected from mature daffodils at Kew during early summer and sown on an open compost mix in pots and kept outside. The pots are then placed in a cold frame during the winter. The seeds germinate in autumn with emergence of seedlings the following spring; however it takes three to five years before daffodils are mature enough to be planted into the Gardens.

Commercially, daffodils are propagated by tissue culture or twin-scaling. In twin-scaling the bulbs are cut into longitudinal segments. These are separated into pairs of scales joined by a portion of basal plate. When planted in compost these develop bulbils on the basal plate and the bulbils can be grown on to form new plants.

When choosing bulbs to buy they should feel heavy and dense. Bulbs should be planted during the autumn, in well-drained soil in a sunny area. They can be planted under deciduous trees that come into leaf late in the year. Daffodil bulbs need to be planted at a depth that is three times deeper than the bulb, with the shoot or point upwards. Deadheading will prolong flowering; however, the leaves should not be cut back until they have faded, as they provide food that is stored in the bulb during the rest of the year. Forcing of bulbs can be carried out to produce early flowers.

The daffodil at Kew

A dried specimen of Narcissus pseudo narcissus from the United Kingdom

Common daffodils (Narcissus pseudonarcissus) can be seen around the Temple of Aeolus during the spring. Tenby daffodils (N. pseudonarcissus subspecies major, also known by the synonym N. obvallaris) can be seen along the Princess Walk and a variety of Narcissus cultivars can be seen along the Broad Walk and around Elizabeth Gate.

Most of the naturalised N. pseudonarcissus growing at Kew are concentrated in the Natural Areas (Conservation Area) and are of unknown origin. The species was not recorded in the George Nicholson survey of 1873; however, Kew’s phenology records show the species was present at Kew in the 1950s.

Dried and alcohol-preserved specimens of N. pseudonarcissus are held in the Herbarium, one of the behind-the-scenes areas of Kew. These specimens are made available to bona fide researchers by appointment. The details, including images, of some of these specimens can be seen in the Herbarium Catalogue.

The Daffodil Walk at Kew

In the autumn of 2000, 70,000 daffodil bulbs were planted on either side of the Broad Walk. Two cultivars of Narcissus, which flower at different times, were mixed to create an impressive display of spring colour. In February and March the hybrid ‘February Gold’ brightens the view followed by N. poeticus (also known as ‘Pheasant Eye’), which fills the air with fragrance in April and May. N. poeticus is native to Eastern Central and South Europe to Ukraine.

40,000 extra ‘February Gold’ bulbs were added in 2001 to create a naturalistic feel to the long drifts. All of this work was funded by the Friends of Kew through its Broad Walk Restoration Appeal and in celebration of its 10th anniversary.

Phenology of the daffodil at Kew

A daffodil near the Temple of Aeolus, Kew (Photo: Jenny Heath)

The plants at Kew Gardens and Wakehurst provide valuable information about our climate and so provide an early warning of the effects of climate change. For example, staff at Kew study the changes in plant life cycles over time (called phenology). Each year, scientists monitor and record the flowering dates of a hundred native and exotic plants at Kew Gardens.

Recent signs of change include a shift in the average flowering date of daffodils (Narcissus pseudonarcissus) and hawthorn (Crataegus monogyna). In the 1980s daffodils commonly flowered around the 12 February, but by 2008 this date had shifted to the 27 January, 16 days earlier.

References and credits

Arlott, N., Fitter, R. & Fitter, A. (1993). British wildlife. HarperCollins.

Blanchard, J.W. (1990). Narcissus - a guide to wild daffodils. Alpine Garden Society, Surrey.

Jefferson-Brown, M. (1991). Narcissus. B.T. Batsford Ltd., London.

Mabey, R. (1996). Flora Britannica. Chatto & Windus.

Zonneveld, B.J.M. (2008). The systematic value of nuclear DNA content for all species of Narcissus L. (Amaryllidaceae). Plant Systematics and Evolution 275: 109-132.

Kew Science Editor: Emma Tredwell
Kew contributors: Steve Davis (Sustainable Uses Group), Tony Hall (HPE)

While every effort has been taken to ensure that the information contained in these pages is reliable and complete, the notes on hazards, edibility and suchlike included here are recorded information and do not constitute recommendations. No responsibility will be taken for readers’ own actions.

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