Have you ever happened upon a clump of daffodil bulbs seemingly in the middle of nowhere? Maybe you were hiking a trail, camping in the woods, or paddling along a creek when a lovely bunch of yellow happened to catch your eye? If you gave them a second thought, you might’ve assumed they were wild, but you’d be wrong. Instead, they hold American history within their bulbs and might be a clue to uncover a mystery!
Early History of Daffodils
The earliest known daffodils originated in North Africa and the Mediterranean, as well as in the mountains, grasslands, and forests of Northern Europe. European horticulturalists began cultivating it in the 1500s, and by the 1700s, an industry boomed around the flower in the Netherlands. As people left Europe for the New World, they wanted to recreate the cherished gardens of their homeland and with them, brought bulbs and gardening traditions that can still be seen today.
Daffodils Come to the Colonies & Flourish in the South
Daffodils aren’t native to North America but after colonists arrived here in Europe, it was discovered that the more popular varieties of daffodils flourished in the southern U.S. states. It is believed that daffodils might’ve arrived in the 1600s, but they don’t appear in the written record until the early 1700s. These early gardens would’ve followed a European pattern with parallel lines of squares or rectangles.
Daffodils Rise in Popularity
From the late 1700s until the outset of the Civil War, daffodils, also called jonquils, grew in popularity and could be found alongside modest log homes, as well as the expansive plantations of the day. Even Mount Vernon, President George Washington’s estate, was adorned with the popular flower variety.
In the Reconstruction Years, many worked to resurrect antebellum gardens and would ‘spruce them up’ by planting new daffodil bulbs, creating a resurgence in their popularity that continued through the mid-1900s. After the turn of the century, even gardeners of modest means had access to seeds and bulbs that would often be shared amongst family and friends. During this era, bulbs would be planted in bullseye patterns in the center of the lawn and spread along the edge of forestland.
Ghost Gardens Left Behind Today
Today, you can find many of these ‘ghost gardens’ spread across the south and although no one has tended them in years, they continue to bloom each Spring. This is because these perennials are tough, dependable plants that contain poisonous crystals to deter rodents and critters from eating their leaves and bulbs. Daffodils also respond quickly to unusual seasonal conditions, protecting their bulbs from intense freezes or heat spikes. The flower is also self-cloning, appearing each season with more bulbs than the last.
So while the people who planted them might be long gone, the flowers persist to mark a site where a family once looked upon with happiness every Spring when mother’s daffodils would bloom. And although the house might be gone, if you follow the line of daffodils, I bet you’ll find a chimney, a house foundation, or maybe even an old cemetery at the end.
If you’d like more information on daffodil varieties or harvesting, you can find information in this PDF from the American Daffodil Society.