There’s no mistaking the vivid yellow flower that peaks through soil and mulch at this time of year, often earlier than any other, adorned with a cup in the center and a saucer at the edge. (Due to to this resemblance, it’s often mislabeled a “buttercup,” but that is in fact an entirely separate genus.) As such, narcissus (Narcissus spp.) is a true harbinger of spring, announcing the end of snowy season and the start of growing season.
But there’s far more to narcissus than its reputation as an early bloomer. In addition, it has a storied history that includes colonization, home sites, toxic compounds, cancer treatment, mountain nymphs, and excessive self-love.
But before we get to all that, let’s cover the basics.
First of all, narcissus isn’t actually a single species but a genus that includes many species and subspecies, wild and domesticated, including a wealth of shapes, colors, and distributions. For the purposes of this article, however, I will be focusing on the narcissus which I’ve come into contact with most frequently on my hikes, the wild narcissus (Narcissus pseudonarcissus) — which also happens to be the one most people are familiar with.
As mentioned before, narcissus is distinctive for being one of the earliest deciduous plants to grow and bloom after winter. It has long, slender, linear leaves that grow directly from the bulb, a small number of which go on to develop buds and eventually flowers.
These flowers are the most easily identifiable part of the plant, consisting of a modified calyx (the saucer) and corolla (the cup) which are usually a vivid yellow in color but can vary between shades of green, white, orange, and pink.
Beyond its physical characteristics, narcissus is native to Europe and North Africa and has been spread around the world, especially to regions that were once colonies of the British Empire. In the course of this, it’s been planted around many historic home sites, which can often be determined by the enduring presence of narcissus even centuries after the buildings themselves have disappeared.
And for that, you can thank the British love of gardening.
[Before harvesting or consuming wild plants, make sure you have the permission of the landowner and an understanding of considerations for use. In addition, it should be noted that all parts of narcissus, especially the root, are toxic and potentially lethal to humans and can cause severe side effects, up to and including paralysis and death. Therefore, all internal use should be strictly avoided, and any external use is at your own risk.]
Ironically, however, narcissus was brought to Britain by another colonizing force, namely the Roman Empire.
And the reason for this is simple. Apart from being very colorful and attractive, the ancient Romans considered the narcissus flower to be therapeutic for a number of topical ailments, including cuts, bruises, abrasions, and abscesses. And not only did the Romans consider it therapeutic for topical uses. So did the Arabs, who used it for baldness and erectile dysfunction; the French, who used it as an antispasmodic; and the Chinese, who used it to treat tumors.
Coincidentally, the last use of narcissus, as a topical application for tumors, has been at least partially corroborated by modern science. One compound in particular, lycorine, has been observed to produce antibacterial, antiviral, and anticancer effects in the laboratory, even inhibiting mitotic cell division in cases of ovarian cancer.
Surprisingly, even the ancient Greeks had knowledge of narcissus’ usefulness for uterine tumors and recommended it accordingly. Beyond that, they also had an elaborate cycle of myths about narcissus, which illustrated metaphorically the dual nature of the plant as both a source of beauty and a cause of a death.
While the myth of Echo and Narcissus is reputed to go back to the time of the ancient Greeks, the first mention of it is in the Metamorphoses, a cycle of poems by the Roman poet Ovid, which he wrote in the year 8 CE.
In this myth, Narcissus is a bewitchingly handsome young man, so handsome that everyone who lays eyes on him is immediately smitten, whether male or female. But Narcissus is a hunter and is apparently more concerned with the chase than with lasting love.
Echo, on the other hand, is a mountain nymph who is only able to repeat the words of others, thanks to a curse placed on her by the goddess Hera. So when she lays eyes on Narcissus, she is only ever able to repeat his words back to him, despite falling in love with him on first sight.
As with most stories of this sort, things go badly. Narcissus ultimately rejects Echo, and Echo runs away into the mountains, pining away until all that’s left of her is her voice. Likewise, Narcissus meets his end when he happens to glance upon his own reflection in the water and instantly falls in love, eventually forgetting everything else in life — even food — and thereby wasting away to nothing.
After he’s gone, a flower springs up in the place where he died, forever bearing his name.
If there’s any moral to be derived from this myth, it seems to be a metaphysical corollary derived from ancient Greek botanical knowledge of the narcissus flower, which is both beautiful and deadly. On the one hand, it can inspire the greatest wonder and delight in those who view it. But on the other hand, those who try to possess it (or possibly ingest it) are ultimately destroyed, taking their place in the soil alongside the plant they’ve consumed.
And perhaps this is nature’s way of saying, “Tread lightly, for the Earth has no need of your pride.”