Trumpets of spring


Like Proust, we all have our madeleine moments. It’s not only food that takes you back in time. For me, it’s the daffodil. Seeing a daffodil always stirs a whirl of memories. It’s amazing that such a simple flower can evoke such powerful images.

I’ve come to love so many of the beautiful flowering plants in Australia, from the colour overload of bougainvillea to the soft summer scent of waxy white frangipani.

a favourite frangipani

And yet, perhaps inevitably, I miss the flowers that I grew up with. Like bluebells spreading a blue mist through a woodland or crocus, huddling together to form richly coloured carpets of petals. I love how delicate snowdrops suddenly appear like spells, and happy primroses hide in plain sight on grassy banks. But most of all, I miss daffodils.

So it was rather wonderful when Anthony quietly sneaked in a few daffodil bulbs among the hundreds of jonquils and narcissus he planted when we first arrived in this house, knowing how much it would delight me. Today, the first one burst into flower, as golden yellow as a buttercup, and instantly I am transported to other times. Given that I take such pleasure in looking back, it’s not surprising that I am today not quite out of my body but certainly in another place.

Three other places, actually.

(Tivy-Side Advertiser)

It was hard to avoid daffodils growing up in Wales. On March 1st, or St David’s Day, the national day, everyone would come to school with either a daffodil or a leek pinned to his or her jumper. They were real, too, and sometimes the leeks were almost as big as the boy who wore it. Some girls wore Welsh national costume, too, with shawls and those funny black hats that look a bit witchy. The daffodils weren’t just buttonholes, either, but the flower and its whole stem, attached using two safety pins. Seeing a playground filled with kids decorated with flowers or vegetables is something you never forget. Invariably some would get thrown about or shredded in some fracas or play. I’m not sure that other nations sport flowers in such a way – Ireland does shamrock, I suppose, but I never saw anyone in England wear a white rose on St George’s Day. Why the daffodil and the leek in Wales? The leek was supposedly worn by soldiers fighting the Saxons so they’d recognise each other on the battlefield. The daffodil became popular as a national symbol in Victorian times, prettier than wearing a cousin of the onion. Some grown-ups wore fabric versions but to wear the real thing as we children did was to tap into the magical power of Mother Nature as strongly as any nature table in the classroom ever did. It made the day feel extra-special and planted the daffodil in my heart.

York (geograph.org.uk)

Oddly, despite having the Welshness of the daffodil instilled into me at an early age, it was after we moved to Yorkshire that I began to appreciate them as flowers growing in the ground. The grassy slopes that buttress the stone walls of York are famously and picturesquely smothered in golden daffodils each spring. Elsewhere they grow along roadsides, brighten people’s gardens and are planted in Wordsworthian hosts by councils in parks. Perhaps it was because I lived in a particularly flower-obsessed town, Harrogate, that they seemed to be everywhere. Their yellow signifies the hope of spring’s arrival, the yellow of a warming sun. How simple they are, too – the trumpet blaring out from a ragged ring of petals, so much less formal than a tight-budded tulip. They seem almost wild and yet have the decorum and design of something a little more perfect. Unpretentious and gentle, they seem to inspire graciousness.

(Magalie L’Abbe, Flickr)

When I moved to my flat in Greenwich in my late twenties, I would often buy a bunch or two of daffodils on my way home from work. As I walked from Embankment station up to Charing Cross to catch the overland train to Greenwich, I would often stop at the flower stall outside the Tube. It always had a colourful display and, along with the red roses and white lilies meant for anniversaries, were buckets of the lowly daffodil, fifty pence a bunch. A couple of bunches plonked any-old-how in a clear glass vase so you could see the pale green stems brightened my sitting room far more than it had any right to. Again, they promised renewal, the coming of spring, the hint of summer in the yellow. Graciousness, again.

The daffodils that are poking their heads up and beginning to flower here will probably not divide and form drifts as they would if they were planted in an English garden. Here, they don’t get the proper winter chill to do that so it’s best to think of them as annuals. I don’t mind. For the moment at least, I can look forward to enjoying their nodding heads, all flouncy and proud, and be an infant in Abergavenny again or a teenager laughing with friends in York. Or the weary young man clutching a wrapped bundle of flowers as he makes his way to the crush of a commuter train in London, wondering what lies ahead in life. I think he’d be pretty happy to know that what lay ahead was a partner who planted daffodils for him in a beautiful garden.

Do you have a Proustian flower?

Categories: Australia, memoir, Other, TravelTags: , , , , , , , , ,

15 comments

  1. What a beautiful post, both words and pictures! Sadly, I’ve had to cut back on gardening the last few years. Thank you for this reminder of how many memories a flower can evoke.

  2. Hello there. Not only are daffodils beautiful, the word “daffodil” is hard to resist.

  3. I didn’t realize that daffodils and jonquils were different, especially given the French ‘jonquilles’ for the yellow flowers. They are indeed a cheerful, hopeful flower and I remember how much my mother loved them, along with all the spring flowers. I can’t say I have any Proustian association with flowers though, as it has really only been as an adult that I’ve developed an appreciation of them. Love the smell of freesias and am partial to a peony for its massive generosity. What a lovely tribute to your thoughtful partner!

    • They’re all part of the narcissus family but jonquils have fragrance and can be multi-headed whereas daffodils have no scent and only one head. But doubtless the French would disagree! I love both the flowers you mention and bemoan the fact that we cannot grow peonies here, either. Then again, I wouldn’t put anything past my plantsman partner so who knows?

  4. What a completely wonderful and beautiful post! I loved it! I found it very lyrical. I love all you said about daffodils and completely agree about the yellow being so hopeful, that shining signal of spring and renewal. They just can’t help but cheer you up, those humble
    You also taught be a few things. I didn’t know about the leek tradition stemming from soldiers – I imagine they could smell where each other was too 😉 I also didn’t know that our spring flowers needed the cold of winter to return again next year. There is something rather symbolic about that.
    Thank you.
    My Proustian flower is the Geranium – Italy, sunshine, heat, exotic locations, olive oil can planters, riotous colours, bountiful, all balconies from the humblest to the wealthiest.
    My current flower pash is the blousy, magnificent, scented, dramatically petal-dropping Peony.

    • Thank you! Yes, that need for cold before the abundance is an interesting dynamic. I wonder if there were daffodils in the Tuscan hills? The prickly scent of geranium leaf and the look of those overflowing containers, as you so beautifully describe, is a real sense memory of so many happy places… I visited the national peony garden in Luoyang in China and it was peony overload – acres and acres of peonies. Total heaven! See, you’ve evoked so many things with your choices… Proustian, indeed.

  5. You have this uncanny knack of transporting me to other places! Thank you Colin. When I lived in Australia I hankered after daffodils in spring, something physical to carry me back to growing up in the UK. I adore the simplicity of the humble daffodil and have made sure that my garden here in France is bursting with them. I’m lucky that it is cold enough over winter to help them proliferate. I never seem to tire of buying more bulbs each autumn, and the delight in watching them grow each spring fills me with such joy. Being a March baby, daffodils are very much my Proustian flowers.

  6. For me it’s not a flower as such that’s my ‘madeleine de Proust’ but more the tall grass and wildflowers growing along the country roads. They’d be mowed by the local council around mid-June where I lived in Brittany. I loved the smell, a mixture of freshly cut grass and drying hay, when walking home from the school bus stop. It encapsulated that excitement about warm sunny days, the end of the school year just a couple of weeks away with entire days free to roam around fields and woods and especially the first days of beach season. I’d love to bottle that smell!

    • Oh, you paint such a beautiful picture of it that I’m not sure a bottled scent would do it justice. Great scent memory and lovely how the seasons are so sharply defined in the Northern Hemisphere whereas here I get a little confused… You’ve reminded me of very happy days spent in Brittany, the prickling smell of gorse and thrift on the cliffs near the Pointe du Raz. Gorgeous.

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