Current Nature: Daffodil Days

Seth Engelbourg •

Twir rebirth
Photo by Charity Grace Mofsen

Looking carefully at nature, you will notice that each month has a unique color that dominates the landscape. April is noticeably yellow, with its blooms of forsythia, dandelions, and the most famous of all- daffodils. This pop of bright color brings joy to many on Nantucket, especially after enduring the pale grays and browns throughout the winter.

Daffodils, while celebrated locally, are not actually native to Nantucket. The approximately 50 species in this genus originate in southern Europe and North Africa but have been cultivated, hybridized, and transported around much of the world since ancient times. During the 16th – 19th centuries in the Netherlands, daffodils became an important horticultural crop, a practice that eventually expanded across Europe. Like tulips, people always seem to enjoy big, bulbous flowers. Widespread cultivation of daffodils continued across the globe, including in the United States; today, the American Daffodil Society officially recognizes 13 divisions of daffodils and over 32,000 registered cultivars.

With spring finally in swing, we anxiously await the Nantucket Daffodil Festival, which kicks off the festival season and reminds us that busy days are fast approaching. Of the Nantucket festivals, Daffy, as it is colloquially called, is one of only two that specifically focus on the outdoors and the natural world, the other being the Nantucket Garden Festival. For those who have never attended, the Daffodil Festival is a unique celebration featuring an antique car parade, a tailgate picnic in Sconset, and of course, the annual Daffodil Flower Show. It is also simply a beautiful time to relax, get outside, and see the wide variety of flowers.

4 Flowers in Daffodil Show
A winning arrangement of flowers in the Annual Daffodil Show

Yet, a threat looms for the long-term outlook of the Daffodil Festival; warming climates and earlier springs. Over the past few years, this has caused flowers to bloom well before the festival dates, and by the time Daffy finally rolls around, many of the flowers are noticeably beyond their peak. This year especially, with our mild winter, I saw daffodils that began to bloom in early March. Although the festival activities have significantly expanded since the event’s inception, being a flower festival, it is essential that the bloom dates match up with the festival dates. Where does this leave event organizers? For decades, Daffodil Festival has been held on the last weekend in April. To better capture peak bloom, there are two options, change the event dates to be earlier in the year or prioritize planting varieties that tend to flower later in the spring. Given the massive number of cultivars that exist, there is, luckily, some variability in their timing. This may be a good strategy for people planning to enter their bulbs in the flower show; however, it may not help with the millions of daffodils planted in public areas such as alongside Milestone Road. Daffodils, being a perennial, live for several years, and many of the flowers we see today can be traced back to the original bulbs planted here in the 1970’s and 80’s, which have spread and multiplied. These bulbs were planted to produce blooms at consistent times each year, mid-late April, which these days may be too late in the season.

Despite the uncertainty, the change in peak flowering dates allows us to collect phenological data and document the change in the timing of daffodil blooms. If done rigorously, this could help inform how our climate changes locally and better predict when daffodils will likely begin flowering.

No matter what happens, I am grateful each year for this special Nantucket tradition and look forward to celebrating. If you are visiting for the first time, remember to be respectful and not pick the daffodils growing in public places so that all can enjoy them. Take in all the hues of yellow while you can because before we know it, they will soon fade to the whites and pinks of May; cherry blossoms, beach plums, and our wild roses.

Stay tuned for more editions of Current Nature, a bi-weekly column featuring seasonal topics, natural history information, and advice on the outdoors from the staff at the Linda Loring Nature Foundation.

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