A Close-up View of the Paper White Narcissus


A Close-up View of the

Paper White Narcissus

Narcissus tazetta 'Paper White'

by Brian Johnston   (Canada)

Daffodils and Paper White Narcissi, are both members of the Lily or Amaryllidaceae family.  Although Paper Whites are small in size, they are extremely popular, in part due to the fact that their bulbs can easily be forced  to bloom indoors during the winter period.  Most species possess a pleasant scent that adds to their charm.  Although as the name suggests, most flowers are white in colour, a few species have been cultivated with a yellow hue.  There are even a few varieties that sport two or three additional whorls of petals.

The name Narcissus refers to Greek mythology, where a strikingly handsome youth named Narkissos, falls in love with his own reflection while gazing into a pool of water.  In one variation of the tale, he falls into the water and is drowned.  In another, he becomes ill and dies.  In both versions however, the first Narcissus flower springs from the ground at the place of his demise.  According to the dictionary, there are three acceptable plurals of Narcissus:  Narcissi, Narcissuses, and Narcissus.  The first two plurals are preferred in places such as Canada and Great Britain, while the last is preferred in the United States.

Each Narcissus bulb can produce as many as twelve flowers during the blooming period .  The image below shows the contents of a flower pot containing eight bulbs which are just about to bloom.  Notice the long, narrow leaves, whose shape is properly called ‘linear’ in botanical terms.

The tip of a flower’s stalk is visible below  As you can see, the group of buds is initially enclosed by a protective, pale green membrane.  The buds burst though the membrane as they increase in size.  Each bud has an oval top in which the three petals and reproductive structures are protected by a whorl of three white sepals.  Connecting this upper structure to the dark green ovary, is a rather long pale green tube.  (The water drops seen in the second, and several other images, were part of an experiment to see if they added interest to the photograph.  After much thought, I decided that this was just a feeble attempt to ‘guild the lily’ – no pun intended.)

It doesn’t take long for the buds to begin to open.  They don’t all open at once, but rather in sequence – topmost first.  The second image shows their appearance after about twelve hours.

Eventually, all of the flowers on the stem bloom.  Notice that the protective membrane at the base of the umbel has turned brown, and has started to disintegrate.  (An umbel is a cluster of flowers in which the individual flower stalks grow from the same point.)

Two photomicrographs showing the cellular structure of this tissue-paper thin membrane can be seen below.

Notice the small size of the ‘trumpet’ in the Narcissi compared to that in Daffodils.

The three-membered whorl immediately beneath the trumpet is composed of actual petals, whereas the three-membered whorl under the first is composed of the protective sepals mentioned earlier.  Since sepals and petals are indistinguishable from one another, they are more properly referred to as the flower’s six tepals.

We are close enough to the flower at this point to distinguish three anthers coated with bright orange pollen grains, and the pale green pistil.

If a couple of the flower’s tepals are carefully removed,  it is evident that there are two sets of anthers, an upper and a lower.  Each anther is connected by its stubby filament to the wall of the ‘trumpet’.  The stigma is supported by a very long style that descends deep into the trumpet’s base.

Ellipsoidal pollen grains can be seen clinging to the style in the image that follows.

The stigma has stubby, hair-like protuberances that increase its surface area, and help hold on to pollen grains brought by visiting insects.

Narcissus pollen grains do not have exactly the same shape.  In the photomicrograph below, the members of the small group appear to have a triangular shape.

Front and back views of an umbel follow.  Notice in the second image, a tardy bud that has yet to bloom.  Botanically speaking, a flower’s pistil consists of three parts: the stigma, style and the seed producing ovary.  In a Narcissus umbel, the darker green, unfertilized ovaries stand out visually.

The ovary has a very shiny surface texture.  This is also true of the plant’s stalks and stem. 

Notice the very distinctive tiny, white spots that cover the ovary’s surface.

As an amateur macro-photographer, I often find that the flower is not the most interesting part of a plant.  To me, the stem of the Narcissus is the most visually appealing structure.  The image that follows shows the point at which the plant’s leaves diverge from the main stalk.

Here is a closer view of the same location.  Notice the sculptural quality of this structure, and the interesting darker green bands that add visual interest.  The image on the right is a highly magnified view of a section of one of the bands seen in the other image.  Notice that here too, we see tiny white dots; these however are microscopically small.

Here is essentially the same image with, and without water drops.  Which do you prefer?

Notice in the sequence of two images, that the water drops are acting as tiny magnifying lenses that show the microscopic cellular detail beneath.

The very thin tissue wrappings that form the outer structure of the stem, are remarkably shiny.

Photomicrographs showing the cellular structure of these wrappings can be seen below.  At the edge of the wrapping material, some of the cells are irregular in shape, and are white rather than green.

Paper Whites are a common sight outdoors in the early spring, and indoors throughout the winter.  These charming little plants are interesting on a variety of levels.  Why not take a closer look the next time you see one?

Photographic Equipment

The low magnification, (to 1:1), macro-photographs were taken using a 13 megapixel Canon 5D full frame DSLR, using a Canon EF 180 mm 1:3.5 L Macro lens.

An 8 megapixel Canon 20D DSLR, equipped with a specialized high magnification (1x to 5x) Canon macro lens, the MP-E 65 mm 1:2.8, was used to take the remainder of the images.

The photomicrographs were taken using a Leitz SM-Pol microscope (with a dark ground condenser), and the Coolpix 4500.

A Flower Garden of Macroscopic Delights

A complete graphical index of all of my flower articles can be found here.

The Colourful World of Chemical Crystals

A complete graphical index of all of my crystal articles can be found here.

 All comments to the author Brian Johnston are welcomed.

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