Monday, February 2, 2015

Narcissi, Narcissi, Narcissi

A few days ago I posted about my "Chinese Sacred Lily" narcissi (Narcissus tazetta var. chinensis) beginning to flower, and since then the double-flowered form of the same species known as 'Constantinople' has come into bloom as well. Both are lovely and fragrant, but I am also fascinated with them for another reason. Historically, these varieties, or at least forms very close to them, have been the most common narcissi throughout much of the world. Especially outside of northern Europe and North America, these forms would for centuries have been what people most associate with the term "narcissus" or its local equivalent. The large yellow daffodil types, so prominent in Western Europe and North America that they have their own names in languages like English and  German, do not appear to have traveled as far or gained nearly the same kind of cultural cache until fairly recently.

Narcissus tazetta 'Constantinople' beginning to bloom in the sun room

In Persian poetry and Persianate literatures like those of Urdu and Ottoman Turkish, the nargis or narcissus appears frequently enough to be very much a stock image of the tradition. It typically represents or is likened to a beautiful, languid eye, with the yellow corona of a Narcissus tazetta var. chinensis-type flower thought to evoke the iris and pupil, discolored by intoxication or excessive crying. 

A 'Constantinople' narcissus from the St. Petersburg Muraqqa' or Album, Iran, 17th century
Source: Flickr

My favorite Indo-Persian lexicographer - let us not get into what it says about my life that I have one of those - who has appeared on this blog before here and here, a very learned man by the name of Ānand Rām Mukhliṣ (1699-1750), also wrote an entry on the "double narcissus" which I am fairly certain refers to the 'Constantinople' variety as well. Here it is, first in the original Persian and then in my own translation:

نرگس صدبرگ: به معنی نرگس سیربرگ است که اهل هند آن را هزاره گویند و چون نرگس صدبرگ که آن بو کم دارد، می شود. راقم اوراق نرگس صدبرگ در شاهجهان آباد دیده، در واقع که بو کمتر داشت ولطف هم آن قدر نداشته. زردی آن که به طور مردمک چشم می باشد، در برگها پنهان بود و بالیده نبود. بنا بر کمیابی تحفگی دارد

Double narcissus: This means a narcissus full of petals, which the people of India call "thousand[-petaled]" and it happens that the double narcissus has less fragrance. The compiler of these pages has seen the double narcissus in Shāhjahānābād [Delhi] and it in fact had less fragrance and also did not have much charm. Its yellow part, which resembles the pupil of an eye, was hidden in the petals and it also was not fully blown. Because of its rarity it is suitable for giving as a gift.

     The Goldfinch and the Narcissus by Shāfi 'Abbāsī, Isfahan, Iran, 1653
Source: Chaudron

Narcissus tazetta var. chinensis is also the most important narcissus in traditional Chinese culture, as attested by both the scientific name and its colloquial English name of "Chinese Sacred Lily", although it probably was not originally native to China but was brought there from the Middle East. Here is a nice piece from Pacific Horticulture on its history in China, its role around Chinese New Year - coming up later this month! - and how it arrived on the West Coast of the US with early Chinese immigrants:

 The single form of Narcissus tazetta var. chinensis blooming in the sun room

Now to leave my darling narcissi behind and head out into yet another blizzard to somehow make it to campus...


Mukhli, Ānand Rām. Mir’āt-ul-Iṣṭilāḥ. Prakashika Series. Delhi: National Mission for Manuscripts, 2013.


  1. That's so beautiful! i have ever flower like that, but the leaves much wider and thin.

    1. Oh, I wonder what species or variety that is!

  2. Thank you for this! I love learning more about the history of plants and this one certainly has a long and auspicious one!

    1. I am glad you found it interesting! As you can tell, I love this sort of stuff... :)


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