The changing natural world at our doorsteps | Illustration and text by Patterson Clark
January 5, 2010
One of the first signs of spring is already visible: Leaf tips of Narcissus now poke through the ground. The dormancy of daffodil bulbs breaks in the late fall after six weeks in cool, moist soil. Shoots grow slowly in the cold, but freezing temperatures won't thwart them - not even 20 inches of snow. In the bulb, low temperatures trigger a conversion of insoluble starches into sugars, which flow throughout the plant, acting as an antifreeze.
These seemingly invincible plants also have built-in protection from a notorious local herbivore. Deer won't eat daffodils, probably because of toxic alkaloids in the plant. One of those, lycorine, is a deadly poison.
Another alkaloid found in Narcissus, galantamine , has been used in Eastern European folk medicine for hundreds of years as a symptomatic treatment for polio. These days it's used to blunt the effects of dementia and Alzheimer's disease.
SOURCES: "Narcissus and Daffodil: The Genus Narcissus," edited by Gordon R. Hanks; University of Florida Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences
One creature thrives on daffodils: the narcissus bulb fly, left, which lays its eggs at the base of the leaves in spring. Maggots tunnel their way down into the bulb, where they hollow out the inside, killing or weakening the plant. Adult flies resemble a bumblebee, and emerge in May.