The Nature of Eureka: From Nemesis to Narcissus

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Ah, the beauty of jonquils, daffodils, and narcissus, all of which in various forms grace the edge of Eureka Springs sidewalks for this week, that previous, and perhaps the one to follow. Daffodils and their many variations are members of the genus Narcissus, of which there are 25 species scattered from Europe to North Africa and western Asia. We all are familiar, at least by sight, to the vast diversity of garden varieties, natural hybrids, and rich colors of what once considered harbingers of spring, now seem to indicate the final throes of winter.

The beauty of daffodils extends from visual splendor to words with meaning. Narcissus is derived from a Greek name. A spurned lover prayed to the goddess Nemesis to punish the heartless amour, the famous mythological Narkissos, who had fallen in love with himself after seeing his own reflection in a pool of water. Nemesis transformed the self-absorbed Narkissos into the flower we call Narcissus (Latin form of the Greek Narkissos).

Of course the same story presents us with the word root of the nouns narcissist and narcissism, as well as the adjective narcissistic. The words have become all-too-familiar in today’s political parlance as a derisive trump-card to refer to vane, self-aggrandized, toxic politicians. In nature’s twist of irony, current affairs vicariously reflect the dangerous alkaloids found in the poisonous genus Narcissus.

Daffodils are often of a uniformly-rich yellow color, while some bastardized hybrids devolved from inbreeding to an orange hue. Here we shall not treat of the bastard narcissus as first described in 1629 by John Parkinson in his famous treatise on garden flowers (Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris (“Pleasant Garden in the Park in the Sun”), a play on words he hoped would not become his nemesis.

With their penchant to propagate, breed and select the best flower bulbs among lilies and tulips, then distribute them at high profit to the rest of the civilized world, the Dutch bulb trade began in earnest in the early 1600s. We enjoy the beauty and color of that penchant for profit today.

All daffodils are in the genus Narcissus. Therefore, all narcissus are daffodils, and vice versa. Jonquils should properly refer to those Narcissus hybrids, which are usually strongly-scented, yellow and have rounded (not pointy) leaves. With over 25,000 registered names for hybrid daffodils, attempting to sort out which is which could become your nemesis.