The 1st of march is St Davids day celebrating the patron saint of Wales. St. David’s mission was in the 6th century he founded a monastic order with some pretty strict rules, insisting that monks had to pull the plough themselves without draught animals and they must drink only water and eat only bread with salt and herbs. Like so many of the saints, Glastonbury, the home of Fragrant Earth, has long been associated with David who was related to King Arthur. The lovely and smallest city of Britain is named for St. David.
Many myths and traditions come from this Welsh Celtic part of the UK one of which is that on the eve of battle with the Saxons, St. David told the army to attach a leek to their helmet or cap to distinguish themselves from the enemy. It became part of military tradition and Welsh soldiers carry the emblem every day, as they show the leek symbol on their buttons.
The wearing of a daffodil as an alternative is a more recent tradition popularised by David Lloyd George. Who in 1911 when Prime Minister wore a daffodil at the investiture of the future king Edward VIII as Prince of Wales in Caernarvon.
Leeks have always been highly regarded as a cure for the common cold and preventing inflammation, incidentally the root of most diseases. Leeks are a tasty, healthy ingredient in cawl, the traditional Welsh broth and are full of beneficial vitamins.
The same cannot be said for daffodils. The daffodil relies mostly on its beauty, and this brings us to the ancient Greek legend of Narcissus, another worldly character being the son of a god and nymph. He chanced to see his own reflection in a pool of water and, thus, discovered the ultimate in unrequited love for he fell in love with himself, worshiping his own beauty. Narcissus’ name lives on as the daffodil into which he was transformed and as a synonym for those obsessed with their own appearance.
The family name for daffodils is Narcissus those beautiful early Spring flowers. The UK is the world’s largest producer of daffodil and narcissus cut flowers, many grown in Cornwall for the earliest blooms.
Narcissuses or daffodils have been known to people since ancient times; there is a mention of this plant already in De Materia Medica, a book of medicinal recipes put written by Dioscorides in the times of the Roman Caesr Nero. Dioscorides was a classical Greek doctor and pharmacologist who is considered one of the Fathers of Botany.
Today daffodils are not familiar as a medicinal herb and if bulbs are eaten, they will cause vomiting and can cause death. Extracts can produce numbness, hallucinations, convulsions and heart palpitations. Modern uses include extracting galantamine from the bulbs to treat Alzheimer’s disease, and research shows daffodil compounds as a good treatment for depression having also the ability to kill off certain cancer cells (such as in leukaemia).
Aromatherapy does not use narcissus, but perfumery certainly does. Narcissus absolute is drawn from two varieties the most common of which is narcissus poeticus, commonly known as the poet’s narcissi or pheasant’s eye.
The smell of narcissus absolute is strongly green, very sweet-herbaceous over a faint, but quite persistent floral undertone described voluptuous darkness yet this note is also honeyed, greenish and soft. It is usually a viscous liquid, dark green or dark brown orange, but occasionally a dark olive colour.
I remind narcissus absolute users that the word narcosis comes from the same Greek root word. It could therefore be considered as an adjunct to ylang ylang for its hypnotic or sedative properties. However, in perfumery it is found in many, many fragrances perhaps as much as 10% of all fragrances. Some names you might know are Givenchy’s L’Interdit loved by Audrey Hepburn or Elizabeth Taylor’s White Diamonds, similarly Samsara and Fatale feature narcissus.
But there are two other narcissus species that have value in perfumery Narcissus tazetta, sometimes called Chinese sacred lily and Narcissus jonquilla simply known as jonquil. However these are often sold simply as narcissus, although there are different odour profiles to the poeticus type.
The tazetta species is now the most uncommon of the absolutes which can be found. It is generally a definite green colour with a more earthy and nutlike notes but definitely a deep floral.
Jonquil again has its characteristic differences not least of which to me is that when used in very low concentrations it smells near to the heady flower making it less ‘floral’ than its counterpart species. Perhaps there is an aromatherapy or medical note, like tobacco, flouve, and spice but this is not dominant as there are so many notes that can be picked up such as honey, orange blossom, hyacinth and tuberose. The latter can be found within all the narcissus absolutes. The jonquil absolute smell is very multifaceted — we can feel here shades of honey and mimosa, orange flower, tuberose, and black currant as well as the herbal bitterness of hyacinth. Expect to see a more deep yellow to brown coloured liquid.
Whilst having narcissus in your collection is itself a pleasure, the disappointing smell from absolutes is not uncommon, they do not often smell as expected from the source flower or materials. Remember these are concentrations and find their true smells only by dilution. The perfumer is trying to create accords, so they look for complementary aromas rather than single notes as might an aromatherapist.
Do not expect narcissus to be inexpensive it is not. There only has an annual availability of 100kg say for jonquil.
Its no surprise to find that synthetic accords have been made to replicate the smell of narcissus and these are readily available so be warned if offered cheap prices. The synthetics are from manufactured phenols and esters such as (4-methylphenyl) acetate commonly known as narcissus, for it seems to smell similar to the absolute but has only one note. From this note other synthetics can be added to provide a narcissus accord.
My best tip is to enjoy the natural flower, for part of natures joy is the feel that the natural aroma and fragrance provides. The Narcissus genus includes 54 primary species, and all known cultivated decorative narcissus hybrids are divided into 13 groups. One of the pleasures of life is reading the catalogues of daffodil growers and nurserymen seeing the lovely photos of all the different varieties. Let’s get outside in the garden or buy some and smell the flowers! If you are a budding perfumer best of luck in trying to reach the complexity of the daffodil smell.
Do not forget the warning of Narcissus for you might find that overly sniffing takes you to another world!