Narcissus, an Ancient Greek hunter, was so beautiful that when he saw his reflection in a pool of water, he fell in love with it. He spent day and night lying by his reflection until his death. In his place sprouted the Narcissus flower, with petals so brilliantly yellow — today, this flower is commonly referred to as the daffodil.
If you’ve noticed these golden flowers appearing all around New York in the spring, chances are they’ve been planted in the fall by volunteers of the Daffodil Project.
Established in 2001 in the aftermath of 9/11, the Daffodil Project is New York City’s largest annual volunteer program, according to New Yorkers for Parks (NY4P). The project has had more than 400,000 volunteers plant more than 9 million daffodil bulbs as a living memorial to honor New Yorkers lost to 9/11 and more recently, COVID-19.
These yellow flowers popping up all over the city are becoming harder to miss by the year, as the number of daffodil bulbs planted in parks is expected to increase to 10 million by 2024.
Ivette Vargas, a member of Drew Gardens — a community garden along the West Farms section of the Bronx River — has been volunteering with the Daffodil Project for two years.
There are multiple ways in which one can volunteer — some volunteers distribute the bulbs free of charge to the public at the beginning of the fall and others pick up the bulbs to subsequently plant them all around the city before the first frost.
Vargas chooses the latter.
This year, the Daffodil Project bulb distribution took place across the five boroughs — the Bronx held its giveaway on Oct. 8 at Mill Pond Park. Vargas and Julio Figueroa, the Drew Gardens manager, picked up four bags of bulbs there, which would amount to 800 bulbs given Vargas’ estimation of each sack having 200 bulbs, she told the Bronx Times.
“It’s very peaceful for me to look at flowers, especially daffodils,” said Vargas, adding that she believed that visitors of the garden shared her sentiment.
Along with planting daffodils, she has been particularly passionate about providing affordable, good-quality food for the public. “And it got me thinking … I really want to learn to grow my own food and be able to share that with the people who I know,” she said, explaining the origin of turning her passion into a reality.
So she took time off of work and traveled to the Dominican Republic in 2016. She would work on a rural farm (“And when I say rural, I mean rural,” she added) for three months and learn about the ins and outs of gardening — permaculture, agriculture, hydroponics and so on. She ended up staying for twice as long as she had intended.
Vargas eventually returned to the U.S. — but she had a problem: “I came back with that knowledge, but I didn’t have any place to practice the skills that I had learned,” she reflected.
She spent the next few years hunting for a garden that she thought would be a good fit, until she ended up at Drew Gardens in March of 2020.
Vargas’ conversation with the Bronx Times took an emotional turn when she revealed how her mother had been diagnosed with leukemia six or seven years ago — another reason behind why she would eventually dedicate herself to growing natural food products.
“My mom was a hairstylist for, I don’t know, maybe two or three decades, and a lot of those chemicals, once you make contact with them, you know, most of it, I don’t know — eighty to ninety percent — goes straight into your bloodstream at a time,” she said. Her frustrations over such information being inaccessible to the public thus fueled her passion for educating people on food, and what’s safe and healthy.
Beautifying the city
The Daffodil Project aims to promote public health through advocating for increased funding for NYC Parks. The project functions “as a catalyst for citywide civic engagement advancing NY4P’s call for 1% of the city budget for NYC Parks,” according to its website.
Currently, the New York Parks and Recreation Department is projected to receive $610.4 million, which represents 0.6% of the Fiscal Year 2024 budget.
The 1% figure is not arbitrary, however — the city’s budget for the parks department was 1.3% in the 1970s. Today, major urban cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco and Chicago allocate anywhere from 1.5-4% of their budgets to parks — despite New York having the most green space.
According to an NY4P report, two hours per week in green space can have positive impacts on one’s sense of well-being and happiness.
“Flowers, parks, and natural spaces have a significant impact on our quality of life,” said Adam Ganser, the executive director of NY4P.
If there’s one Bronxite to credit for lifting her neighbors’ spirits by improving natural spaces, it’s Jaleesa Franco, the Castle Hill resident who was affectionately dubbed the “flower girl” after planting 5,000 flowers through the Daffodil Project since 2021.
“I want everyone in Castle Hill to be able to see something beautiful in their neighborhood,” Franco told the Bronx Times last year when her story went viral. “We have a lot of beautiful things that are easy to miss, but it’s hard to miss beautiful flowers everywhere.”
And Franco is not alone in her vision to beautify her neighborhood. Another participant in the Daffodil Project is Rachel Daykin, a resident of Central Harlem. In 2017, Daykin was the beautification coordinator for her neighborhood block association. That year, upon hearing about the Daffodil Project from a friend, she put in an order for bulbs with the idea of “beautifying [her] block.”
“I grew up in the country, so I’m always trying to bring bits of green into the city,” said Daykin, who grew up in Scotland where daffodils were a big part of her springtime. “So I guess there’s a nostalgia piece for me, but I love being able to get with my kids, with other people who might not have grown up with that.”
According to Daykin, the number of her fellow community members participating in the Daffodil Project since 2017 has increased from five to 35.
“And everyone looks forward to it. You know, we make a big sort of community there,” she added.
Daykin and her fellow volunteers will be planting hundreds of bulbs in the second weekend of November, and Vargas with the Drew Gardens this weekend, weather permitting — New Yorkers have not had the best of luck this fall, having to deal with persistently rainy weekends.
According to Daykin “everyone feels better” once the daffodils are planted.
“It always makes me happy to see the daffodils,” she said.
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