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THROUGH THE WOODS: Daffodils and butterflies



I WANDER’D lonely as a cloud

That floats on high o’er vales and hills,

When all at once I saw a crowd,

A host, of golden daffodils;

Beside the lake, beneath the trees,

Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

—William Wordsworth 1804

WHAT BEAUTIFUL IMAGERY for a beautiful flower. It also fits the floating dancing flight of a butterfly, and this past week I enjoyed both. The first butterfly out near the house, as usual, was the brown, buff-edged, 3” mourning cloak butterfly. If it alights for closer inspection, the row of iridescent blue dots just inside the buff edge can be seen, and the wings are actually a rich, very dark red velvet color. Only four legs are visible, but like all insects, there are actually six, with the front two legs near the head and very short and hairy. This puts them in the category of brush foot butterflies. I always feel so excited to see them and think, right or wrong, that finally, winter has gone.

The reason this butterfly can emerge and fly so early is that it hibernates through the winter as an adult. It can survive very harsh, cold winter weather, and actually requires a cold stage. They are found throughout much of North America and Eurasia, Siberia and Japan, but it does not survive in mild, damp climates such as in Great Britain.

Specimens found there are migrants and called the Camberwell beauty for the area they were first discovered near London in the 1700’s. The name mourning cloak is a literal translation for this article of clothing and comes from Scandinavian (“sorgmantel”) and German (“Trauermantel”). It is thought that these early settlers gave us this name. The official, scientific name is Nymphalis antiopa. Narcissus was the classical Greek name of a beautiful youth who became so entranced with his own reflection that he pined away and the gods turned him into a flower. People sometimes refer to certain types of daffodils as narcissus, but in general, growers refer to all types as daffodils.

Daffodils grow wild and are found in a variety of habitats in Europe and North Africa. Spain hosts the greatest variety of species, but they can also be found in Morocco, Portugal, western France, Italy, and other countries. Daffodils were found in gardens at a very early stage in the history of man. About 300 BCE, the Greek botanist and philosopher Theophrastus listed and described many of the earliest known kinds. Thousands of cultivars have been bred by hybridizers around the world. These cultivars are usually grown in spring, or less frequently in autumn or winter. The petals are mostly yellow or white but can occasionally be orange, green, red, or a combination of these colors. In 1884 the first daffodil conference of the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) was held and its Narcissus and Tulip Committee was formed (now called the Daffodil and Tulip Committee). The RHS first introduced a division classification “list” in 1908 for garden and show purposes. Seven divisions were adopted, primarily based on size measurement. These evolved and expanded until, in 1998 at the request of the Royal General Bulbgrowers’ Association of The Netherlands, Division 11 was separated into two sub-groups: Collar and Papillon split-cup daffodils. Papillon is French for butterfly, so now we have recognition for this lovely quality.

The RHS, as the International Daffodil Registration authority for cultivars, ensures uniformity, accuracy and stability in the naming of daffodils. Now classification consists of 13 divisions or groups of daffodils, identified by numbers. Each daffodil cultivar or garden hybrid is placed into one of the first twelve divisions. Wild forms of daffodils or “species” are placed in Division 13. Whether wild or cultivated, once a selection has been distinguished by a cultivar name it is assigned to one of Divisions 1 to 12. Although this is interesting and necessary, for me I am with Wordsworth and wish only to rejoice each day as I discover more daffodils emerging from the spring flower beds.

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