The first splashes of yellow are starting to appear across our gardens and parks so it must be nearly daffodil time. There are over 10,000 narcissus cultivars and ‘Carlton’ is the most commonly grown of all. There are 5,300 hectares of this cultivar grown in the UK for cut flowers alone. This cultivar was first registered in 1927 and it is estimated that there are now 350,000 tons of it (or 9450 million bulbs)! Is this the most massive plant taxon on earth? 
 narcissus cultivars

March in the SCIence Garden

Narcissus was the classical Greek name of a beautiful youth who became so entranced with his own reflection that he killed himself and all that was left was a flower – a Narcissus. The word is possibly derived from an ancient Iranian language. But the floral narcissi are not so self-obsessed. As a member of the Amaryllidaceae, a family known for containing biologically active alkaloids, it is no surprise to learn that they contain a potent medicinal agent. 

Narcissus (and in particular this cultivar) are an excellent source of galanthamine, a drug more commonly associated with snowdrops (Galanthus spp.). Galanthamine is currently recommended for the treatment of moderate Alzheimer’s disease by the National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) but is very effective in earlier stages of the disease too. 

 Galanthamine

Galanthamine

Today, part of the commercial supply of this molecule comes from chemical synthesis, itself an amazing chemical achievement due to the structural complexity of the molecule, and partly from the natural product isolated from different sources across the globe. In China, Lycoris radiata is grown as a crop, in Bulgaria, Leucojum aestivum is farmed and in the UK the humble daffodil, Narcissus ‘Carlton’ is the provider.

 Narcissus

Narcissus ‘Carlton’ growing on large scale

Agroceutical Products, was established in 2012 to commercialise the research of Trevor Walker and colleagues who developed a cost effective, reliable and scalable method for producing galanthamine by extraction from Narcissus. They discovered the “Black Mountains Effect” – the increased production of galanthamine in the narcissus when they are grown under stress conditions at 1,200 feet. With support from Innovate UK and other organisations, the process is still being developed. Whilst not a full scale commercial production process just yet, the work is ongoing. As well as providing a supply of the much needed drug, this company may be showing the Welsh farming community how to secure additional income from their land. They continue to look for partners who have suitable land over 1000 ft in elevation. 

The estimated global patient population for Alzheimer’s in 2010 was 30 million. It is expected to reach 120 million by 2050.  The global market for Alzheimer’s disease drugs for 2019 was US$ 2870 million.