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Don’t eat the daffodils

Don’t eat the daffodils

The fireball lily, Scadoxus multiflorus
The fireball lily, Scadoxus multiflorus
EVELYN ROE

There is a special word for the distinctive scent of the first rain falling on dry earth: petrichor. The evocative smell comes from plant oils and bacterial products released into the air when the soil is soaked after a long dry period.

This is the time when buds hidden within the fleshy scales of underground bulbs burst into life and shoot upwards into the light. Some bulbous plants make use of the first rain to produce flowers before the leaves, and suddenly the bush is decorated with fireballs and squills.

The tall poison squill, Drimia altissima, in the hyacinth family, is a striking example, with flower stalks of at least a metre tall. Each of the small flowers which make up the inflorescence lasts for only a day, usually opening in the morning and closing by midday. The bulb contains a heart poison, and has been traditionally used as heart tonic and diuretic, a treatment for bronchitis and rheumatism, and to clean external wounds. In some places it is also used for tanning hides.

Another family with bulbs is the daffodil family, the Amaryllidaceae. This includes the fireball lily, Scadoxus multiflorus, the Crinum lilies, and Pancratium tenuifolium, the spider lily.

These bulbs have high alkaloid content, particularly in their outer scales and in mucilage-rich cells which contain bundles of needle-shaped crystals called raphides. These sharp crystals can irritate the skin, causing a rash which some people experience when handling flowers such as daffodils and lilies.

As is the case with many plant compounds, poisons can be used as medicines in low dosages (and only with expert administration). An extract from certain snowdrop and daffodil species is being used as a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, for example, and the fireball lily is traditionally used as an antiseptic and diuretic.

In traditional practice, when a bulb is required for medicine, only part of the bulb, not the whole thing, is dug up, and care is taken not to damage the emerging leaves. In some societies, it is considered good practice to leave a small personal item - such as a necklace - in the hole, which is then closed.

Many genera within the daffodil family are poisonous, so even though they are popular as garden and house plants for their spectacular flowers, care should be taken when handling them. I have read of a case in which a woman who had eaten a bouquet of Narcissus died after two days. The message is: don’t eat the daffodils.

Read more about the region in our destination guide:
Livingstone

Read more articles from this issue:
Zambezi Traveller (Issue 14, Sept 2013)

More articles in this series:
Christmas crackers (ZT, Issue 15, Dec 2013)
Don't eat the daffodils (ZT, Issue 14, Sept 2013)
Rainforest Riches (ZT, Issue 13, June 2013)
Berry banquet (ZT, Issue 12, March 2013)
Marvellous Mangoes (ZT, Issue 11, December 2012)
Underground Forests (ZT, Issue 10, September 2012)
The healing powers of Aloes (ZT, Issue 09, June 2012)
Dogbane Drugs (ZT, Issue 08, March 2012)
Devil’s Claw (ZT, Issue 07, December 2011)
Elephant Toothpicks (ZT, Issue 06, Sept 2011)