There has always been something soothing about gazing at a field of daffodils. It’s a signal that spring is finally on our doorstep and offers hope that the warmer weather is finally on its way.
The bright yellow flowers have also been used as a beacon of hope for cancer organisations around the world. The flowers were first used for this by Canada in the 1950s, when volunteers organising a cancer fundraiser decorated tables with daffodils because they believe they signalled hope that cancer could be beaten.
From there, the idea gained momentum throughout the world and in 1990 the Cancer Society of New Zealand began its annual Daffodil Day street appeal, selling the flowers to raise much-needed funds.
But it is new research that has put daffodils back in the spotlight, and the “flower of hope” is giving just that to those impacted by dementia.
It has been discovered that growing the plants at a higher elevation encourages them to produce more galantamine, an alkaloid substance that helps raise the levels of the chemical acetylcholine in the brain. This chemical is lower in people living with Alzheimer’s. It is not a cure, but raising levels of acetylcholine eases symptoms like memory loss while slowing down the disease’s progression.
Leftfield Innovation crop technologist Nick Pyke says galantamine can be found in a variety of plants, and countries such as China and Bulgaria were already looking at options for the perennial, which doesn’t die off after harvesting like most plants.
Daffodil production is already underway in Wales and now five Canterbury and central Otago high-country sheep farms are involved in a southern hemisphere trial, which is funded through Our Land and Water’s Rural Professionals Fund.
The New Zealand plots will be grown at varying elevations from sea level to 650m to determine which conditions provide the highest levels of galantamine. Small plot trials have shown commercially viable amounts of galantamine can be produced.
Almost 70,000 New Zealanders live with dementia but experts believe that number will balloon to 170,000 by 2050. Worldwide estimates have more than 50 million people currently suffering from dementia.
A 2021 Dementia Economic Impact Reportcommissioned by Alzheimer’s NZ and compiled by the University of Auckland makes sobering reading.
The report shows care partners of people living with dementia provide nearly 53 million hours per year of unpaid care, valued at $1.19 billion. That is because almost two thirds of people affected by dementia live at home for most of their time with the condition.
Four out of five New Zealanders know, or have known, someone living with dementia and the illness impacts more women than it does men. Dementia numbers are increasing at a faster rate among Māori, Pasifika and Asian populations than among European New Zealanders.
The report found dementia will cost NZ nearly $6bn a year by 2050 and one in four New Zealanders will die with the condition.
For those who have had to helplessly watch friends and family suffer from the illness, the new research – and possibly high-country daffodils – will offer some much needed hope.