The Narcissi-ists versus the Tenders of Native Bulbs

An essay about living in place using a recent example of ego-logical management of our common landscape

Opening

Every moment, we face personal choices to work against or with nature. Some of those choices have more, some have less, impact. In sum, those choices reflect how we see ourselves in the world. In this essay, I contrast two cultures from the North Coast of Santa Cruz: those who embrace the widespread planting of daffodils versus those who favor the wide ranging management for native species of bulbs. I illustrate how cultural norms of the former are indicative of a wider dis-ease of our species, which is dooming future generations to reduced standards of living and increased poverty of the spirit. And, I outline how a contrary world view can lead us to increased prosperity in a world with clean water, plentiful wildlife and happy, healthy children.

Transforming Nature or Transforming Ourselves

Some people feel most at home only after the landscape is transformed away from nature. Others are transforming themselves to settle comfortably into what is more natural. Managing our yards, our cities, our parks, our landscape against, or away from nature seems easier and its certainly more common. This process might even be called “normal.” Managing our yards, our driveways, our farms, our parks and our citiscapes to be in harmony with nature is unusual, harder, and is a Big Continuous Adventure- an opportunity for clearly unending work. And yet, transforming our landscapes away from Nature does not serve our interests over the long run. Managing WITH nature is the only hope for future generations. Which way will you go? Let’s walk together for a moment towards these two destinations and see what feels more right..

To avoid quibbles, I’ll first admit that we can’t help but transform nature whatever we do…but whether we choose to manage our lands with or against nature is more than a matter of degree. I see a philosophical division in these approaches, a way we choose to be, that is vastly different depending on what you intend to do. And yet, there are many paths, many vehicles, to work for or against nature when managing our land. The future is uncertain…. 

To illustrate the choice between the two approaches. I ask the simple question:

Are you in favor of widespread planting of daffodils? 

The Narcissi-ists Project

My community recently faced this question. And the debate became quite nasty. But, the words and ideas were very telling about how people living on the same mountain see our common landscape. There are diametrically opposed approaches to land stewardship at work simultaneously on Ben Lomond Mountain. I predict who will win: the culture that is managing against nature. And, I suspect how that dominant paradigm turns out: global warming, a world on fire, not enough food, not enough clean water, miserable people, extinct wildlife, air pollution…etc.

A little context and back story for the local situation is in order.

The CZU Lightning Complex Fire blackened our landscape last August and, in response, some people thought it would be nice to color that blackened landscape with splashes of cheerful color. This was their way of recovering from a traumatic disaster where people lost homes, pets, and their belongings. The green forests, lush shrublands, and moist stream corridors were transformed in the course of a week to crispy dry blacks, browns, and ashy grays. Wouldn’t it be nice, they thought, if daffodils would brighten this bleak landscape come spring? More than just art or gardening, to them this was building community and healing.

And thus, The Narcissi-ists Project was born. Bushels of daffodil bulbs (genus Narcissus, many cultivars; plural of the common name, Narcissus, is Narcissi) were purchased and people were urged to buy and plant them along roadsides and wherever visible to the public. Many people warmly welcomed this community project, proudly announcing their plantings on social media and urging their neighbors to participate.

To understand whether The Narcissi-ists Project was a choice towards the transformation away from Nature or towards Nature, one has to understand how daffodils might or might not ‘fit’ into the ecology of the area. So, here’s some natural history…

Daffodils in California? Nooooo!

Daffodils don’t belong in California, and they don’t fit in. They are toxic, their colors are strikingly foreign to the landscape, they compete with native plants, reduce pollinator communities, they present an increased fire hazard, and they are nearly impossible to remove once established…there’s no going back.

Narcissus species have the poison called lycorine, especially concentrated in the bulbs. Ingestion of the plants can cause seizures, abnormal heartbeat, pain, and/or convulsions. Apparently, pet dogs are routinely hospitalized for ingesting the species. Even exposure to dust from the dead bulbs or sap can cause problems. People say that adult dogs might be as smart as 5 year old humans. I wonder how many people would put daffodil bulbs where their two year old toddler might ingest them? Probably no one would wittingly do such a thing. And so, why would any kind person put these poisonous bulbs where baby wildlife might encounter them?

Aesthetically, daffodil bulbs stand out in our local landscape: nothing in nature looks anything like them. Those yellow trumpets add to the seas of non-native yellows created by French broom and Bermuda buttercup. The Big Yellow daffodil trumpets appear in early spring, visually shouting above any of the more subtle wildflowers that naturally occur at that time. At Daffodil Time, there are numerous subtle white-pink native wildflowers: manzanitas, madrone, milk maids, sorrel, and star lilies to name a few, more common species. How is the Narcissi-ists project transforming the aesthetic of our common landscape? What will this screaming yellow do for our children’s expectation of the spring landscape…will those yellow trumpets change their ability to engage with the more subtle and diverse native wildflowers? Will this New Color make them want to further transform and brighten the landscapes of their future, to make them even MORE COLORFUL?

One bulb planted begets seeds and bulblets and yet more plants over time. The process is slow and site specific. Some dry, sandy soils are poorly suited for some Narcissus cultivars and those die out without additional ongoing care. Other, more moist ditches, meadows, seeps, cliffsides, or dunes are more conducive to daffodils. In those places, over time, the species is proving to be slowly invasive, edging out native plants and spreading from where they were introduced. A home site high up in the meadows of Wilder Ranch State Park has hundreds spreading from where they were once planted. A bulb field above 4 Mile Beach at Wilder Ranch has hundreds of daffodils clinging to rocky cliff edges and down into ravines adjacent to the fields they were once cultivated for cut flowers. There are escaped daffodils near Scott Creek Beach, perhaps from a memorial planting or from cultivated fields or homesites nearby. All of these populations are spreading and removing them would be impossible without concerted toxic herbicide work in difficult to reach places with follow up over many years. Meanwhile, those daffodils are doubtlessly causing wildlife poisoning. And, wherever they invade, daffodils displace native plants with their flowers that support pollinators, which we desperately need to conserve due to declining honey bee populations.

(Oh, and by the way, daffodils die back in the spring and leave a relatively large amount of papery, easy to ignite fuel, creating a fire hazard – be sure to rake that stuff up and dispose of it appropriately)

That was a lot of information about one type of landscape manipulation- one project of the Narcissi-ists in our area, taking steps to transform our landscape away from nature with all the concomitant repercussions.

The Other Way: Tending the Wild Bulbs

But, there is another way…to live with nature. For clarity of contrast, I use another bulb culture analogy. There is a burgeoning movement of people wanting to learn how to tend the wild. Our local naturalists, primitive skills practitioners, wildlife trackers, native plant gardeners, and weed warriors are exuberant about the relearning of the Amah Mutsun, gleaning lessons from them and other tribal peoples about how to live with the land here in California. We practice what we learn where we live, where our friends live, or where we can help conservation lands managers. We get to know the native geophytes, our native bulbs, some of which have been important native foods to the indigenous peoples. 

Many native bulbs respond very favorably to tending, even to fire. Star lilies bolt ten times as big after fire. Randy Morgan draws our attention to a narrowly endemic, endangered bee he captured pollinating the native star lily in the UCSC meadows. Native checkerlily and globe lily bound abundant when the forest understory is tended. There are many stories of people tending grasslands with digging sticks, harvesting and cultivating native bulbs for food.

(An aside- native bulb leaves are not very plentiful, are largely edible to wildlife and so do not accumulate as a fire hazard)

We steward native grasslands, woodlands, and redwood forests to tend our native bulbs. After fire, we must patrol for jubata grass invasion and control broom and ivy. With more light on the forest floor, bulbs will do better, but so might the weeds. 

Native bulb stewards work to figure out how to live on this fire adapted landscape so that we have native bulbs in the future. Scientists forecast more frequent, more intense fires and wind storms with increased global warming. In California with more frequent more intense fires, forests give way to shrublands and those to weedy grasslands…the bulbs disappear. And so, native bulb stewardship requires political action to end fossil fuel consumption and to transform agriculture and improve building and transportation efficiency. 

Of the two bulb cultures, which one do you want to join?

(and, its not about just bulbs)

Scaling Up: the Ego-Political Landscapes of Narcissi-ist Types Across our Common Planet

I wonder if those who would affiliate with the Narcissi-ists have similar notions about transforming Planet Earth in other ways. One suggested that they believe daffodils to be different than French broom, the latter being a problem but not the former. Here, we meet abandonment of the precautionary principle, which is inherent in managing with nature: how do we act so that no harm is irreparably done? This is why managing for nature is ongoing and full of observation. Those who think that the precautionary principle should only apply to human bodies and not the body of life that supports humans are being short sighted, they may be either faithful in technological solutions or believers in an inevitable apocalypse (which I have found is depressingly common). Would those types of people have us make swift uninformed decisions for relatively short-term and minor outcomes, in general?

Another of the Narcissi-ists has pointed to their own (inexpert) online research to show that daffodils are not invasive. This notion was presented despite local and very experienced experts testifying (in a signed letter) to the contrary. And so, those who would transform nature appear to not only abandon the precautionary principle but also to embrace a world where group expertise is rejected in favor of individual experience. Science denial writ large is just one step away from that approach. Dismissal of indigenous knowledge is another outcome of that way of thinking. In short, I wonder how the Narcissi-ist types are thinking life will thrive in seven generations, and who do they think should guide us towards the best outcome?

10 comments

  1. Could you please comment on the yellow oxalis ( wood sorrel ) and acacia that seem to be taking over in the county along with broom. Also, have you seen any evidence of daffodils being invasive in the area of Bonny Doon as opposed to Wilder and the coast? I have noticed that most seem to die out after after a few years. Also, what is your opinion regarding the environmental ethics of planting fruit trees and vegetables in areas such as Bonny Doon?

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    1. Hi Reed. There are various weedy oxalis invading, as you note- very difficult to control. Acacia is easier to control, though it takes concerted effort. Acacia has the added problem, like broom, of adding nitrogen to the ecosystem. Wilder Ranch is part of Bonny Doon. The issue with daffodils being invasive is that they are slowly invasive- I’d expect them to be a problem over the course of decades any place that isn’t really deeply sandy or with extremely poor soil. Where have you noticed them die after a few years? I think it is ethical to plant food plants in productive soils in as clustered a manner as possible, especially in areas previously cleared where native biological diversity has alreaady been destroyed. Clearing additional wild areas for food is problemmatic, especially where the areas are then irrigated, fertilized, etc. There is special concern for wild prairies and chaparral which are especially rich in native species. An additional measure of concern is about increasing corvid populatons:those birds increase around human trash and agriculture and then also eat songbird and the endangered marbled murrelet nestlings- so, be careful and don’t let them eat compost, fallen fruit, the fruit on the trees, etc.

      Thanks for asking! – Grey

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    1. Hi Jeff! Thanks for the kind words- I’m glad you liked it. I would have guessed that you would understand it with your keen intellect and ability to think about systems and the ‘big picture.’ – Grey

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  2. Thanks Grey. Right on, right on! Hal Anjo

    *To what can our life on earth be likened?To a flock of geese,alighting on the snow.* *Sometimes leaving a trace of their passage.* Su Tung-Po

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    1. Hi Hal. Thanks for the kind words. Your quote is beautiful. I hope to be more like those geese and hope that others join me in striving for just that. In part, this will mean trying to figure out how to stop people from leaving boot prints on their children’s fertile future without further damaging their obscured sight. – Grey

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  4. A fine essay and excellent food for thought, Grey. Your comment: “Those who think that the precautionary principle should only apply to human bodies and not the body of life that supports humans are being short sighted” is particularly apt.

    I once planted daffodils in our urban home garden, annoyed that the gophers appeared to take them, so switched to potting them. Now I shall eschew the daffodils and plant more natives, for the pollinators. My eyes will certainly be happy to see twelve pollinators replace my current inventory of twelve daffodil blooms!

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  5. Hey Gray – Long time no see/hope this finds you well!
    Tell me, what are some other alternative bulbs that provide the bright blooms, and some gopher & deer resistance …as narcissus do… for the Santa Cruz gardener, including where can we find/buy said native bulbs/plants… ? (I did see you included 3 types of CA lilies)
    tamara

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