By Charlotte Owen
The daffodil is one of our earliest spring flowers, with its spiky green shoots starting to emerge from the cold winter soil as early as December. Some varieties naturally flower early in the year but daffodils are traditionally at their best in March, when large swathes of golden ‘trumpets’ brighten up our verges, parks and gardens. These daffodils are usually cultivated varieties, planted deliberately or perhaps garden escapees – but if you venture into the dappled shade of an ancient woodland or tread the damp grass of a wildflower meadow, you’re more likely to see the native wild daffodil (Narcissus pseudonarcissus).
Smaller and daintier than most garden varieties, the wild daffodil has pale, creamy-yellow petals with a darker yellow ‘trumpet’ and narrow, silvery-backed leaves. It once grew so profusely that a Belgian botanist visiting London in 1581 noted “…the country women offer the blossoms in great abundance for sale and all the taverns may be seen decked out with this flower.”
For decades, daffodil picking was common practice and certain hotspots were so popular with sightseers that Great Western launched its ‘Daffodil Special’ train service in the 1930s to transport Londoners by the carriage-load to admire the yellow carpets. They returned with armfuls of daffodils but the wild populations continued to thrive, and it wasn’t until after the Second World War that the plants started to decline. With the industrialisation of agriculture, daffodil meadows were ploughed up and bulbs were often deliberately uprooted because of their toxicity to livestock. The wild daffodil was no longer a familiar sight and the ‘Daffodil Special’ stopped running in 1959.
Today, wild daffodils may be harder to find but they do still grow in a few remaining fragments of their former range. Some of their strongholds continue to flower in profusion and in Sussex there is a thriving colony at West Dean Woods nature reserve, just outside Chichester. Millions of flowers will bloom among the traditionally-coppiced hazel woodland, creating a stunning sea of yellow. There is restricted access but now is the perfect time to walk the public bridleway along the western edge to see them - nearest postcode P018 0RU.