It has been a crazy spring here in Central Illinois, with a continuous string of record-breaking temperature. The plants are in absolute fast-forward. Spring ephemerals, trees, shrubs and perennials alike are budding out and bursting forth all at once. I wouldn’t be surprised if I look outside this morning to see my garden in its full summer glory.
As I’ve walked around the garden each day this week, trying to decide which plant I’d learn and feature, one gorgeous spring daffodil consistently caught my attention — Narcissus ‘Barrett Browning’. I planted several clumps of this daffodil in the fall of 2010, when Kylee Baumle (Our Little Acre) and I challenged each other to a bulb-planting contest that ended up with both of us planting more than 1,000 bulbs. This spring, when many of the spring flowers are fading quickly in the heat, ‘Barrett Browning’ has been a true star.
Narcissus has been a spring mainstay for centuries. The name of the genus comes from Greek mythology. According to the myth, Narcissus was a hunter of unusual beauty who was so enamored with himself he felt disdain for all who might love him. When Nemesis (the spirit of divine retribution) saw Narcissus and his pride, she attracted him to a pool of water where he saw his reflection.
|Narcissus by Caravaggio (Wikimedia Commons)|
He was so taken by his own beauty, he started at the image in the water until he died. The myth concludes with a flower growing in the place where he perished — the Narcissus.
Jump forward several thousand years and countless hybridizations and we have the wonderful world of daffodils. The American Daffodil Society says there are between 40 and 200 different daffodil species and over 25,000 named cultivars. ‘Barrett Browning’ is just one of them.
According to Brent and Becky’s Bulbs, ‘Barrett Browning’ is 3 WWY-O daffodil.
What, you say? Exactly, I was a bit confused by the secret code myself.
The American Daffodil Society cleared up my confusion by explaining what the codes meant. The first number is the division. Daffodils are divided into 13 different divisions. ‘Barrett Browning’ belongs to Division 3 — the “small cupped daffodils” — defined as having one flower per stem, with a cup (the center part of the flower) no more than 1/3 the length of the petals. The first three letters in the code describe the color of the flower’s petals (or perianth). The first letter describes the outside edge; the second, the middle of the petals; finally the third letter identifies the color of the part of the petals nearest to the cup (or corona). The last letter in the code identifies the color of the cup itself.
In the case of ‘Barrett Browning’, the code is 3 WWY-O, short for Division 3, White (outer petal), White (middle petal), Yellow (inner petal), Orange (cup).
But what’s in a name? I will admit that when I first purchased this daffodil, I figured it was named after some British guy named Barrett. It’s been a long time since high school literature, and it didn’t even occur to me that this daffodil’s namesake is Elizabeth Barrett Browning, the 19th-century English romantic poet whose interest in Greek literature formed the basis of much of her work.
Among her most famous work is Sonnets from the Portuguese, a collection of poems she wrote for poet and playwright Robert Browning, whom Elizabeth would eventually marry.
Perhaps you’ll recognize Sonnet 43 in this collection:
- How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
- I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
- My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
- For the ends of Being and ideal Grace.
- I love thee to the level of everyday’s
- Most quiet need, by sun and candlelight.
- I love thee freely, as men strive for Right;
- I love thee purely, as they turn from Praise.
- I love thee with the passion put to use
- In my old griefs, and with my childhood’s faith.
- I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
- With my lost saints,—I love thee with the breath,
- Smiles, tears, of all my life!—and, if God choose,
- I shall but love thee better after death.
It’s easy to see how the name ‘Barrett Browning’ was chosen for such a beautiful Narcissus — a genus steeped in the Greek tradition that Elizabeth Barrett Browning held dear. I know that I will never be able to walk through my garden in springtime without her beautiful verse echoing in my mind.