Daffodil Flowers – How They Develop and Why (Redux)

daffodils (CC BY 2.0) by Martin Ramsden

First Signs of Spring?

We’re about to switch to the stupid “daylight savings time” here in the Pacific Northwest, and I’m starting to see some daffodils around town…both iconic signs of spring in many parts of the world.

The appearance of the daffs motivated me to revisit this post from 2015 regarding the unusual shape of the daffodil flower. I’ve “polished” it a bit, including fixing broken weblinks.

Hope that you enjoy this slightly updated version…

Where Does The Daffodil Flower’s “Trumpet” Come From?

An answer to this question can be found in a 2013 report published in The Plant Journal (please see Ref. 1 below). The full text of this article is now available online (thanks to the Wiley Online Library), and I’ve read it (so that you don’t have to). Here’s my take on this story:

Maybe we should we should start by taking a closer look at the flower of the daffodil.

Starting from the outside working in, the six petals are actually “tepals”, which are a kind of developmental combination of sepals and petals.

Next up is the famous trumpet-shaped part of the daffodil flower called the corona (“crown”) that is the main subject of this blog post.

The central part of the daffodil flower consists of the six stamens that encircle the carpel (gynoecium). In the photo above, you can barely see the anthers (produce pollen) of the stamens, and also you can only see the top of the carpel called the stigma (receives pollen).

When And How Is A Daffodil Flower Made?

You maybe surprised to find out that a miniature version of the daffodil flower actually develops not in the spring just before it blooms, but at the end of the previous growth season. Thus, a floral bud is fully formed, and over-winters, within the dormant bulb.

This means that plant scientists investigating daffodil flower formation (see Ref. 1 below) have to dissect out flower buds from the developing bulbs. Whew! (Thank goodness for grad students: nearly the ultimate in cheap labor. Ultimate = undergrads!)

Anyway, as a result of such efforts, Waters, et al. (Ref. 1 below) discovered that the daffodil corona forms relatively late in the flower-development program.

As described in a previous post, the flower-development program can be described like a play with several acts.

In the first act, the plant genetically shifts from a vegetative state to a flowering state.

In the second stage, which I call “arranging the chairs”, the spatial arrangement of the flower is determined.

In the third act, which I call “seating the guests”, the different flower parts (in this case, tepals, stamens and carpel) are seated in their appropriate “chairs”.

In daffodils (and perhaps other species within the Amaryllis plant family that have trumpet-shaped flowers) there apparently is an additional fourth act.

In this final act of daffodil flower development, new “chairs” are provided and arranged in a circle between the rings of the tepals and the stamens. These “late” guests are then seated.

The question was: to which of the four basic flower parts (sepals, petals, stamens, carpels) are these “late” guests most related? Turns out they are genetically related to stamens.

But, of course, an obvious question is: How does the daffodil make something that looks like petals by starting with the genetic “blueprints” for stamens?

The honest answer is we simply don’t know at the present time. It should be mentioned, however, that some of the results of Ref. 1 show that there is a late burst of coronal growth in the spring, so a great deal of elaboration of the “stamen” program is happening to result in a petal-like structure. This and other evidence suggest that petal-like structures “…can be produced by different genetic pathways even within the same flower.” (from Ref 1 below)

Why Do Daffodils Have Trumpet-Shaped Flowers?

Most explanations from botanists involve attracting pollinators. But who pollinates domesticated daffodils? Mostly likely, it’s people!

Most of the showy daffodils that we see in the spring in parks and around homes and businesses are a product of plant breeding, i.e., artificial selection, not natural selection. (You can read more about this here.)

That is, such daffodil flowers are a product of what has looked good to humans (daffodil breeders especially), not insects. Indeed, most of the domesticated daffodils that we see in the spring may not be especially attractive to bees, and thus the daffodils may not even be pollinated (unless the bees are desperate).

What about the origin and evolution of trumpet-shaped flowers (before humans got involved)?

No one can be absolutely certain of an answer, but the long narrow corona of the genus Narcissus may have evolved to accommodate pollination by bees over butterflies or moths, which can’t easily enter the tall narrow corona to access the pollen. (from Ref. 2 below)

In Summary:

If all of the above was a bit much, it might help to listen to a brief (4 min) audio clip about the daffodil’s mysterious trumpet courtesy of The Science Show on Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s RadioNational.

OK, if you’ve listened to this audio clip, then you’ve heard that the “trumpet” or “corona” of the daffodil flower is probably not an extension of the petals, as previously thought, but is a distinct organ – sharing genetic identity with stamens.

If you haven’t listened (and even if you have), you can read brief summaries of Ref. 1 (below) here and here.


1. Waters, M. T., A. M. M. Tiley, E. M. Kramer, A. W. Meerow, J. A. Langdale, and R. W. Scotland (2013) “The corona of the daffodil Narcissus bulbocodium shares stamen-like identity and is distinct from the orthodox floral whorls.” The Plant Journal, Vol. 74, pp. 615-625. (Full Text)

2. Graham, S. W. and S. C. H. Barrett (2004) “Phylogenetic reconstruction of the evolution of styler polymorphisms in Narcissus (Amaryllidaceae).” American Journal of Botany, Vol. 91, pp. 1007–1021. (PDF)

Question: Doesn’t the scientific study of flower development ruin people’s appreciation of the aesthetic beauty of flowers?

Answer: Here’s the best answer to this question that I know of, provided by Nobel Laureate (Physics, 1965) Prof. Richard Feynman:

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