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Narcissus spp., daffodil

Summary

This abundant spring favourite appears to be one of the most frequent causes of accidental poisoning but, as the symptoms are, generally, not severe and treatment at home is the rule, incidents do not find their way into official statistics.

Family

Amaryllidaceae

Meaning of the Name

Narcissus
It is often said that the gods turned Narcissus into a flower to spare him from his obsession with himself following his ill-fated love of Echo but Pliny says the name comes from ‘narce’, ‘torpor’ based on its effects. ‘Narce’ is, of course, the root of ‘narcotic’. It is said that Narcissus, the plant, appears in poetry long before the birth of Narcissus, the person.

Common Names and Synonyms

daffodil

Narcissus spp., daffodil

Narcissus, daffodil

How Poisonous, How Harmful?

The whole plant is poisonous but especially the bulbs. It contains two alkaloids, narcissine (lycorine) and galantamine as well as the glycoside scillaine (scillitoxin).

The books say, poisoning most often occurs when people mistake the bulbs for onions and, amazingly, the books are right.

Eating as little as half a bulb has been known to cause an unpleasant stomach upset lasting a couple of days but, typically, the symptoms are not so serious as to need hospital treatment.

Incidents

The commonly stated claim that the bulbs of the daffodil and other bulbs get confused with onions seems to be highly unlikely. But a case in May 2009 in a primary school in Suffolk, England, is typical. Pupils at Gorseland Primary School used onions grown in the school's own vegetable garden to make soup in a class project. Unfortunately, a daffodil bulb had found its way into the onions and nearly a dozen of the children vomited with others reporting stomach cramps. Prompt intervention saw twelve children taken to hospital and others treated at the school but they were all well enough to go home later the same day.

Confusion between Narcissus bulbs and onions goes back a long time. In 1924, the Bulletin of the Missouri Botanic Garden reported the case of four people, staying together in a private house, who prepared their own meal and included a daffodil bulb instead of an onion. It seems that the people concerned were not in the habit of preparing meals which may explain why their suspicions were not aroused by the absence of onion smell and tearing of the eyes. The report, which is taken from a presentation to the Edinburgh Pharmaceutical Society, suggesting the incident happened in the UK, says that the lack of knowledge of cooking may have been a blessing since only a single bulb was used whereas an experienced cook would have included rather more. 

Such incidents have continued and the spring bulbs produced the greatest number of incidents reported by visitors to the Alnwick Garden Poison Garden. The following is a selection.

A visitor poisoned herself and her dinner party guests by grabbing daffodil bulbs rather than onions when she didn’t bother to switch the lights on in the garage.

In another case, an au pair was left to prepare the family meal and used daffodil bulbs instead of onions.

A visitor, certainly aged over 60, related how, at 12 years old when her mother was ‘away’ she cooked a stew for the family. She went to get some onions from the garden shed where they were kept but selected daffodil bulbs instead. She was the only one who was not taken ill after eating the meal.

Narcissus spp., daffodil

Narcissus tete a tete

A man, probably in his 70s, related that his mother, when a child, had been poisoned when the family’s maid put daffodil bulbs in the meal.

A woman remarked that she had a friend who had put daffodil bulbs into a meal but it was not to possible to get any further details.

An example of the effect of amount came when a couple related their experience of daffodil poisoning after an ageing aunt included bulbs instead of onions in a meal. The husband ate a whole bulb whereas his wife ate only half. He was violently sick after ten minutes and then recovered fully. She suffered two days of nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea.

A visitor had eaten part of a pheasant casserole made with daffodil bulbs. Another visitor said ‘I know about them, I fed them to my parents’. When he was quite a young child, both his parents were ill in bed so told him how to make a stew for them but not how to distinguish between onions and daffodil bulbs.

A recently qualified dentist said that one of her fellow students was convinced he was going to fail an examination which would have led to him having to leave the university. Before the exam started he ate a daffodil bulb and began vomiting after half an hour forcing him to leave the exam room. Because of this he was allowed to re-sit the exam at a later date when he was better prepared.

In September 2009, a visitor to this site sent details of her experience of daffodil poisoning. Her mother-in-law gave her a bag of 'mystery vegetables' which included some daffodil bulbs. It was only after she had used them in a family meal and all three of them had begun to vomit that she listened to an answerphone message from her mother asking if she had planted the daffs yet and realised what had happened. She sought medical advice and the family ended up spending several hours, of a holiday weekend, sitting in the hospital 'just in case'.

In the spring of 2012, there were a number of poisoning incidents in Bristol after Chinese supermarkets stocked bunches in daffodils, in bud, and they were used as chives in Chinese cooking. It has not been possible to ascertain whether the error occurred at a wholesalers leading to the bunches being mislabelled or whether many people all made the same mistake. Around ten people were treated in hospital but others may have suffered without needing treatment.

Folklore and Facts

The daffodil is a good example of how plant folklore continues to evolve. Most of the ancient folklore is associated with the plant being one of lost love, deception and death but, with its adoption as the symbol of the Macmillan cancer charity, it now becomes a flower of hope.

Narcissus was loved by Echo but she could not tell him as she could only repeat the last words spoken to her. When her unrequited love led her to fade into a distant voice in the mountains, Narcissus was punished by falling in love with the first person he saw which was his own reflection. Thus the daffodil has a strong association with lost love and sorrow.

Pluto grabbed Prosperine and took her to the underworld when her attention was distracted by picking daffodils. So, it is the flower of deceit and impending death.

Otto Brunfels (1488-1534), like many before him, didn’t not actually see many of the plants he described which led him to make, what appear to us to be, stunning errors. In 1530 the first part of his 'Herbarum vivae eicones' appeared. His text was, it would seem, intended to accompany the first book for hundreds of years to attempt to depict plants accurately.

According to Brunfels, the Narcissus produces yellow flowers at the beginning of the year, white flowers in the spring and purple flowers in September. It is clear from his full description that he has conflated Narcissus, Leucojum aestivum and Colchicum autumnale into a single plant.