My favourite flowers are daffodils- gaudy ubiquitous and brazen – I just love them. Only recently however have I been made aware of their profound importance in my own life.
I’ve long adored the daffodil’s fulgent colours, their architectural trumpets and of course their sheer tenacity. I like the dwarf ones; the florid ones with a ruffle; and the more refined white and orange variety with their dainty coronets. But Perhaps my favourite is the humble yellow daff known aptly as the Trumpet Daffodil.
These last thrive everywhere, even in the most neglected of places. Daffs grow on wasteland, amongst rubbish tips and along motorway verges. And without fail they confidently herald the start of spring.
Common to much of the Northern Hemisphere, Daffodils have been honoured in art and literature for centuries: sometimes for their simple beauty as did the Dutch masters in the floral still life paintings of the 17th and 18th centuries, and sometimes as metaphors for other themes .
In 9th century Persian literature the narcissus served as an analogy for eyes, seeing and for longing. 15th Century Christian art depicts the plants discreetly amongst scenes of crucifixion to subtly signify the resurrection. Dalí similarly used them to imply change in his work the metamorphosis of narcissus. Writers from Housman to Shelley have evoked the flowers poetically as fragile symbols of death.
In Western Europe we’ve again come to associate daffodils with Easter. Less connected now to religious iconography than to cartoon bunnies and chocolate eggs.
Still the buckets of cheap bunches in supermarkets provide a source of optimism. We have enjoyed daffs in our homes for centuries. Wild varieties were picked and sold as long ago as the 18th century. Today a bunch of cultivated stems can be bought for less than a quid.
Once important and celebrated flowers, today tacky and cheap. But despite their waning fortunes, Daffodils have become significant through other means.
Mum recalls that when I was born in late March she looked out from the window of the Maternity unit and noticed that the field beyond was carpeted with vivid yellow. It must have stuck with her because she regularly gives me some on my birthday and she recounts the story each March 23rd as if it’s never been told.
Excited by the spring this year I marvelled at their particularly showy displays. Perhaps to coincide with their arrival , a news article told of the power of this humble little plant.
I discovered that my husband David’s dementia drug galantamine – intended to address his worst symptoms – is made from essence of narcissi; from daffodils. Galantamine is present in the leaves and bulbs of all varieties of daffodils, protecting plants from grazing and infection.
Unbeknownst to me the powerful effects of narcissi as a numbing agent have long been appreciated. Socrates noted their narcotic properties and their name derives not from the myth of the self infatuated youth but from the Greek word narkao meaning to benumb.
Later and across much of Europe preparations made from daffodils were used to treat burns, pain and wounds. There’s much written on the historic uses of the bulbs as either medicine or poison owing to their potent effects on the nervous system.
Only recently however has galantamine been isolated and used in mainstream medicine to treat prevalent diseases like epilepsy and dementia.
In the UK as the baby boomers age, concern over dementia has grown with them. Today over 800,000 live with some form of the disease and almost half of us have a close relative or friend living with dementia.
There is no cure. And as anyone with any knowledge of Alzheimer’s, Lewy Bodies or vascular dementia will tell you, they are desperately inhumane diseases. Sufferers slowly disappear, their old selves appearing in fragments until a vacant shell remains. Memories of what they knew and could do get distorted and lost as the disease advances. Most sufferers live in what must be terrifying confusion and helplessness, cared for by frustrated and grieving loved ones.
There are as yet no drugs that can prevent or cure dementia but one of the few currently licensed for treatment is galantamine. After trying several other drugs that didn’t suit him, David was prescribed galantamine by his neurologist in March 2018 as the daffs were coming into bloom. It has proven effective in clinical trials and I was grateful that he could get it from our overstretched and underfunded NHS.
Galantamine is an acetylcholinesterase inhibitor. In other words it reduces the rate that the important neurotransmitter called acetylcholine is broken down in the brain. This little molecular messenger is crucial for memory and thought- the very things that make us who we are.
Just as there is no hard and fast prognosis for the trajectory of dementia in each patient, there is no way to tell how the handful of drugs offered will be tolerated or helpful without first trying them.
David is not without side effects and suffers from significant dizziness after taking his tiny lozenge first thing in the morning. A million miles from the bitter tasting bulb, perhaps the mind altering potency the Greeks cautioned of is somehow taking effect on him too.
And yet, since being on this drug, I have noticed that David’s recall is slightly better, he is perceptibly less vacant, and awareness of his surroundings has improved. This list of attributes belies the importance of memory, spatial awareness and cognizance for living a full and decent life. While no miracle drug, galantamine offers profound palliative treatment for many people.
Their value to a growing number of sufferers and the sheer number of bulbs needed to make the drug mean that it’s an expensive treatment. Galantamine is roughly the same price per kilo as gold-but for sufferers and their carers it is priceless.
Further research hints that other alkaloids found in the daffodil family could potentially provide treatments for a variety of diseases. So perhaps this cheap and tacky flower could be as celebrated as it once was, but not by great artists and writers, instead by the sufferers and loved ones of this cruelest of diseases.
‘Now the full throated daffodils,
Our trumpeters in gold,
Call resurrection from the ground,
And bid the year be bold’
– C. Day Lewis, From Feathers to Iron, 1937.