Daffodils: The End of Waiting

Daffodils are the year-round Vineyarder’s special pleasure, along with pinkletinks and parking spots in Edgartown.

I wouldn’t trust a snowdrop with the keys to my car. As everyone knows, snowdrops are pathological liars, willing to bend even the weakest evidence to their own mysterious purposes. Crocuses, meanwhile, sweet and innocent though they may be, are hardly things on which to build your hopes and dreams for the future, let alone your entire front yard. Naiveté of the crocus variety might catch your eye in passing, it’s true, all flouncy and flirty the way they are in their bright little cliques. And short. But beyond the momentary eyeful of color, what’s left to say to a crocus?

Daffodils, however, are different. Daffodils represent everything that is good and true and right about spring on Martha’s Vineyard. I think.

The myth of their origin is well known. The botanical name for the family, which now includes thousands of cultivars, is Narcissus, after the beautiful Greek youth who was able to resist the advances of a nymph named Echo. Never mind that Echo was good enough for Zeus, Narcissus only had eyes for himself and either died of hunger while staring into his reflection in a pool, or fell in and drowned, or faded away. Once gone, by whatever means, Narcissus was not missed and was replaced by the pale yellow flower on a slender stalk. Daffodils are also associated with Persephone, who was picking them near the river Styx when she was abducted and taken to the underworld. Now the flowers supposedly bend their heads in shame for their role in the tawdry affair, which resulted in bringing winter to the planet for half the year.

But associations with death and other antisocial behaviors are unfair, better directed toward fussier bulbs such as specimen dahlias, which are typically planted alone in positions of great honor and then have to be pulled from the soil every fall lest they expire. Or perhaps tulips, which famously brought down the Dutch economy and generally can’t coexist with such pedestrian plants as field grass. In a word, they’re unreliable. Daffodils, on the other hand, carry on through it all, decade after decade, as sheep fields give way to woods that are then cut down again to make room for houses.

In West Tisbury, for instance, I have seen daffodils blooming beneath impenetrable coils of cat brier. I’ve seen them next to empty cellar holes, and at the edge of the scarp overlooking the north shore. And even though solitary daffodils are perfectly capable of spreading their good cheer all alone decade after decade by some forgotten rock in the woods, they are just as happy in small clumps of a dozen or more, or even large congregations of several hundred. No, they don’t tip their heads in order to gaze at their own reflections, or in shame, but to encourage the day lilies to get on with the hard work of coming on up.

It’s tempting to make something out of the fact that daffodils on the Vineyard are sort of a year-rounder’s special pleasure, along with pinkletinks, shadbush, and finding a parking place in Edgartown. After all, the bulbs are planted with great expectations on crisp fall afternoons after the summer crowds have left, and they bloom and are gone long before the fudge shops reopen or the direct flights from New York commence. But I suspect the flower wouldn’t much appreciate or approve of such petty selfishness. It’s simply not the daffodil’s style.

Daffodils are here for one reason, which is to announce the end of waiting: “It’s really true, it really comes, it’s really here, there’s no turning back.” With thousands of varieties, each with a slightly different voice, and a slightly different schedule, it’s a symphony that can last nearly six weeks.

No one has ever argued with a daffodil. Not even the grouchy old oaks, whose own bud swells are nearly bursting at the seams by this point, but who nonetheless politely wait until the daffodils have spread the good word before putting out their own leaves.