What’s in a Name?

That which we call a daffodil by any other name still ushers in spring

By Ross Howell Jr.

Despite the cold, when March came to the mountains the boy I once was felt there might again be spring. After a snowy season feeding cattle with their rumps — and mine — bowed against bitter winds, I walked along split-rail fences, melting drifts limning muddy pastures.

The earth was warming with spring, and on sunny afternoons groundhogs nosed from their dens, groggy with winter sleep. I hunted them with my uncle’s pump-action .22.

One afternoon I came upon a sight that filled me with wonder. A neat row of daffodils nodded in the sun at the edge of a wood. Their yellow blossoms were all that remained of what had once been a homestead. I watched them as they danced with the breeze. Their faces were hopeful. I imagined a mother planting them for her family, a thin border next to a log house, long since vanished.

Back then, I didn’t call them “daffodils.” Among my kin, they were known as “jonquils.” In fact, I don’t remember hearing the word daffodil until my senior year of high school, in Mrs. Humphries’s English class, when we read the William Wordsworth poem, “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.”

I raised my hand, wanting desperately to impress
Mrs. Humphries. She was a recent Radford College graduate, and quite attractive.

“Yes, Ross?”

“Those flowers sound like jonquils to me,” I said.

“In England, they’re more commonly referred to as daffodils. From the Latin asphodilus, The English ‘daffodil’ is probably adapted from the Dutch, ‘da asphodel,’”
Mrs. Humphries said.

I was crestfallen.

“Why everybody knows that,” my nemesis,
Verna Belcher, hissed from the desk behind me.

A quick poll of my Greensboro neighbors — my “scientific” question was, “When you were growing up, what did you call the yellow flower that bloomed first in spring?”— yielded mostly “jonquil,” though “daffodil” was an occasional response, and even “buttercup.”

It’s complicated.

“In some parts of the country any yellow daffodil is called a jonquil, usually incorrectly,” writes the American Daffodil Society, employing what I expect is their euphemism for the rural South. “As a rule, but not always, jonquil species and hybrids are characterized by several yellow flowers, a strong scent and rounded foliage.”

Now that plant sounds like what I think of as narcissus. So when I say “jonquil,” I should be saying “narcissus”? It’s not that easy.

“The term narcissus (Narcissus sp.) refers to a genus of bulbs that includes hundreds of species and literally tens of thousands of cultivars!” writes gardener Julie Day. “The Narcissus genus includes daffodils, jonquils and paperwhites, among many others, so when in doubt, this is the term to use.”

Just to confuse me further, Day adds this statement: “However, when someone says ‘narcissus,’ they’re usually referring to the miniature white holiday blooms of Narcissus tazetta papyraceous, known as paperwhites.”

Now I have paperwhites in my garden, too. But I call them “paperwhites.” So am I to understand that the flowers I called “jonquils” as a boy I should’ve called “daffodils,” and some of the bloomers I have in my garden now, the ones with the small trumpets, rounded leaves and scent, the ones I’d thought were narcissus, are in fact jonquils?

Not necessarily. Julie Day goes on to say that “daffodil” is “the official common name” for any plant in the genus Narcissus.

“So, if the plant is considered a Narcissus, it is also considered a daffodil,” Day writes. “However, most people use the term ‘daffodil’ when referring to the large, trumpet-shaped flowers of the Narcissus pseudonarcissus. These are those big, showy, familiar bulbs that bloom in spring that we all know and love.”

Got that?

But what about Mrs. Humphries? And the asphodels? Turns out they’re a different genus altogether. But some of their blossoms sure look a lot like jonquils. I mean, narcissus. Oh, you know what I mean.

And what about buttercups?

Things sure were simpler when I was a boy in the mountains hunting groundhogs.  OH

Ross Howell Jr. was rewarded for dividing and replanting bulbs this fall with a display of daffodils that brightened even the most confused and gloomy of March days.

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