In the midst of a deathly, monotone winter, life is getting ready to burst out – including the narcissists of the plant world. By Margaret Simons.
Détente with the daffodils
It was the longest night. On June 21, we passed through the winter solstice: the moment when our segment of the planet is tilted furthest from the sun. There were just nine hours and 32 minutes between sun-up and sundown – five hours less than at the height of summer.
Darkness remains, for some weeks yet, the default. In mythologies worldwide, this is the time of witches and fear and fireside storytelling. The world is dormant, rotting, yet charged even in the appearance of death because – we all know it – spring and summer are unavoidable, implied by their opposite. In the round of the seasons, we are always exquisitely in the present, yet preparing for what comes next.
In my tiny inner-suburban backyard, the winter solstice sometimes seems tamed. The streetlights push back the darkness. The headlights of the cars heading through the McDonald’s drive-through light up my living room, whether I want it or not.
But the season reaches us all, even in the middle of our man-made wilderness.
My day starts in darkness with the dog. In the dog park you can’t see the dogs. Instead, there are constellations of red and blue LED lights from their collars bouncing around in the middle distance, while their owners loom as rugged-up shadows. Two lights come together – the dogs are sniffing each other or wrestling. A stillness in a single light, accompanied by a slight tremor – the dog is shitting. “Hey Siri, switch on the torch,” we dog walkers say, trying to find the turd by the light of the phone.
It is tempting – easy – to see the garden as dead, the world as monochrome. One is advised by the gardening media to take stock and plan, to oil one’s tools, and to scrutinise seed catalogues over a cup of tea and by the heater.
And yet there is so much going on, even in my patch of compromised cultivation. Feeding the worm farm under the lemon tree with my fetid bucket of peelings and coffee grounds, I look up and see a watercolour of clouds and ribs of filtered light. The crabapple tree has leaves of bronze. The lemon tree is a cluster of yellow globes. And then I see the gall wasp swellings, and go back inside to fetch the potato peeler.
The gall wasp lays her eggs on citrus twigs and branches in the summer. Over winter, the branch is deformed by the growth of the larvae. Leave it too long, and in early spring each gall will be drilled with tiny holes. The wasps will have gone.
The usual advice is to cut off the galls in winter, before the great escape, hacking the tree back hard if needed. But for several winters now, acting on the advice of a neighbour, I have instead reached for the potato peeler. With this, I shave the gall down, exposing the innards. It works just as well as pruning and does less damage to the tree.
The shortness of the days means that the things I want to grow slow down and stop. Just before the solstice I got back from two weeks away to find the chickweed overwhelming my planted spaces – cascading over the sides of the pot in which lettuces sulk through winter and choking the maidenhair fern.
Chickweed is kind of a good thing. You can eat it like spinach or put it in a wrap as you would alfalfa sprouts. I decided to set aside the weekend to tackle it, telling myself I would not be weeding but rather reaping a harvest.
But how much harvest does one want? By the time I had pulled it all out, I had a knee-high pile – enough to provide winter greens for the entire neighbourhood. You can even put it in smoothies, if you think that is a good idea. You can make chickweed spanakopita. It is full of vitamin C. We will never get scurvy while there is chickweed.
And yet precisely because it is everywhere, and therefore not noticed, it is not the sort of thing that you can leave in the street food pantries intended for the poor, nor expect to be taken if you leave it out the front of your house, as the people of this neighbourhood usually do with garden surplus. “Weeds – free to good home”.
So I made a chickweed omelette, and crushed the rest into the green bin.
We have not yet had the coldest day, which usually comes some weeks after the solstice, when the earth and water have given up the last vestiges of summer heat. Yet now, minute by minute, the days are lengthening.
The rats and mice are working harder at getting into my home to steal my heat. I hear their scratching in the walls, their cuddling up tight in the insulation. Soon they will breed.
And the garden is already preparing for its great leap forward. By the back gate I have two big pots that I planted with daffodil bulbs in April. I am deeply ambivalent about daffodils. They are the bling of the plant world – some of the most bred and fiddled-with plants on the planet.
“Daffodil” is the common name for any plant in the genus Narcissus – including jonquils and so forth. And “narcissus”, of course, is a reference to the famously self-obsessed youth of Greek mythology.
That seems right to me. Daffodils are narcissists, coming up jauntily and nodding away in uniform, painterly glory, depressingly perfect. For those few weeks of reliable showiness in early spring, one must tolerate months of bare soil when they are dormant, followed by another month or so of strappy green leaves littering the place, but which cannot be cut back because they are photosynthesising and feeding the bulb so the whole thing can happen again next spring.
Daffodils are ubiquitous – the IKEA of gardening. Like the Billy bookcase or the Lack table, everyone seems to have some. In Britain, there is even an “I hate daffodils” movement that tries to convince councils not to plant them on every roundabout and piece of wasteland. Then there is its counter, an “I love daffodils” group, which takes as its theme the famous poem by William Wordsworth.
I wandered 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
… A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company …
For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils
This poem is a classic of English literature. It makes me want to give Wordsworth and his daffodils a swift kick.
Yet, I planted some daffodils because a neighbour was giving away the bulbs, and when I cleared the chickweed, I discovered they already knew the days were lengthening. The tumescent green spears were poking above the soil. Within weeks, there will be yellow sheaths in their little paper wraps, preparing to spring into all that jocund fluttering and dancing business.
Then the time of myth and darkness will be behind us and we will be forced into the lengthening days, the demands of daylight and the inevitable, unavoidable rocketing into heat and light.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on July 8, 2023 as "Détente with the daffodils".
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