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Daffodils Mean Spring is Coming!

During the least colorful part of the year, after the Christmas lights are stashed away and before spring flowers blossom, we console ourselves by looking at seed catalogs or a nice blog post about the flowers to come. I've heard that people are seeing daffodil sprouts around town, which is exciting. No blooms yet, at least where I am, but the daffodils (and spring) will be here soon! Photograph by Flickr user Gail Johnson.

Daffodils, Narcissus, jonquils, March blooms, these terms all refer to the flower that comes back every spring on roadsides, hills, and flower gardens over a large part of the Northern Hemisphere. They are a part of the Amaryllis family, and many types grow wild. 

Phalanx

According to the American Daffodil Association, there are 13 different divisions of daffodils, each with a different look. They come in all sizes, shapes, and colors, which serious growers raise for competition, and casual gardeners try out for something new and different. Photograph by Flickr user code poet.

Yellow on green

The flower Narcissus was named for the Greek god who fell in love with his own reflection. The bell of the flower tilts downward, like someone gazing at his reflection in the water. But the word also resembles the Greek word narke, or narcotic. Daffodils are toxic, especially the bulb. The main poison is lycorine, although other toxins are present in smaller amounts. Photograph by Flickr user Steve-h.

narciso stint

In 2009, students at Gorseland Primary School in Suffolk, England were poisoned when a cooking project went wrong. The students were using ingredients from the school's garden, and a daffodil bulb was mistaken for an onion. Twelve children were taken to the hospital, but quick intervention saved them from permanent harm. This was only the most widely publicized of many cases of poisoning resulting from mistaking a daffodil bulb for an onion. Always sniff for the onion smell when using garden onions. Photograph by Flickr user nociveglia.

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The flower also contains calcium oxalate in its sap, which can cause "Daffodil itch." The malady is mostly limited to florists who handle a lot of daffodils. Photograph by Flickr user Emma Williams.

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The daffodil is the national flower of Wales, and is traditionally worn on March 1st, St. David's Day. St. David was a monk in 5th century Wales who worked hard, never drank alcohol, founded many monasteries, and eventually became archbishop. He is the patron saint of Wales. St. David's symbol is the leek, so the wearing of daffodils on his feast day is more of a patriotic custom than a religious gesture. St. David's Day photograph by Flickr user Swansea Photographer.


Daffodil manor

In England, daffodils are sometimes referred to as Lent Lilies. A poem by A. E. Houseman tells how the daffodil blooms at the beginning of Lent and is gone by Easter. It says, in part:

And there's the windflower chilly
With all the winds at play,
And there's the Lenten lily
That has not long to stay
And dies on Easter day.

Above you see a manor in East Sussex surrounded by a sea of daffodils last spring. Photograph by Flickr user Sebastian Anthony.

Daffodils.

An old tale from China links the daffodil with prosperity. A farmer left land to two sons, but one grabbed the lion's share, leaving the other with only an acre of rocks -but there was water on that acre. A fairy granted him some narcissus bulbs, which grew and impressed people so much they bought them and made him a wealthy man. His greedy and jealous brother also planted narcissus bulbs, but they did not grow because his land, though vast, had no water supply. Even today, the legend goes, if a daffodil blooms by the date of the Chinese New Year, it is a symbol of good luck and prosperity for the coming year. In northern latitudes, this means growing them indoors and forcing the blooms. Photograph by Flickr user abac077.

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In the USA, daffodils bloom all over, starting in the South and working their way north throughout the spring. Camden, Arkansas has a Daffodil Festival early, on March 9th and 10th this year. The Daffodil Festival in Puyallup, Washington is celebrating its 79th year this spring with a series of parades in April. Shown here is one of the parades from 2006. Meriden, Connecticut, holds their Daffodil Festival on April 28th and 29th this year. You might find a daffodil event near you. Photograph by Flickr user Jeff Muceus.

Randolph County, Alabama

In many places, daffodils can thrive for decades with no intervention. My parents' farm had a large square of daffodils in the pasture that enshrined the spot where a previous house stood. They bloomed every spring for about forty years after that house burned down, but eventually succumbed to mowing, and the fact that I dug up a lot of the bulbs. It looked a little like this pastoral scene. Photograph by Flickr user Melinda Shelton.

William Wordsworth was inspired to write the poem I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud, also known as Daffodils in 1804.

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Food
8 Surprising Uses for Peeps
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You can eat marshmallow Peeps, and you can put them in someone's Easter basket. But that's just the beginning of what you can do with those small blobs of sugary goodness. Branch out and use your Peeps in new ways this year.

1. S'MORES

Peeps are marshmallows, and can be toasted over a campfire just like their plain, non-sugar-coated brothers—which means you can make classic S'mores out of them. Best of all: You don't even need a campfire to do it. Serious Eats has a recipe for them that they call S'meeps, which only requires that you pop them in the oven for a short time. If you're a Peeps purist, forget the graham crackers and chocolate and enjoy the unique taste of campfire-toasted Peeps all by themselves.

2. WREATHS

Vanessa Brady at Tried & True has made several Peeps wreaths that are sure to inspire you to do the same. (She even has a tutorial to get you started.)

3. PEEPS-KABOBS

If you want to trick a kid into eating a fruit salad, just serve it up on a stick—with a marshmallow Peep in the middle. Blogger Melodramatic Mom made these for an irresistible after-school snack for her kids.

4. ART SUPPLIES

With their consistent shape and size, and variety of bright colors, Peeps can be used as pixels for larger artworks. Ang Taylor made this Mario jumping a Piranha Plant out of marshmallow chicks and bunnies. To be honest, there are many ways Peeps can be used as an art medium, as we've seen many times before (like in this collection of Peeps dioramas).

5. CAKE TOPPERS

Peeps chicks and bunnies are ready-made decorations that will easily stick to cake frosting and make for desserts that are both seasonal and colorful. If you need a recipe, check out this one for a Marbled Cake with Peeps and M&Ms. See some more cake decorating tips here.

6. PEEPS POPS

There's no danger of misshapen cake pops or drippy lollipops when you start with a Peep on a stick. Michelle from Sugar Swings made these candy pops out of marshmallow Peeps, and using Peeps left her plenty of time to decorate them as Star Wars characters. Michelle has plenty of other Peeps pops ideas you can try out, too.

7. PEEPS KRISPIES TREATS

We've seen that Peeps can be substituted for marshmallows in recipes, but remember that Peeps come in a variety of colors and can be bought in small batches. That makes them really useful for coloring separate portions of your Rice Krispies treat recipe. Kristen at Yellowblissroad has a recipe for Layered Peeps Crispy Treats, and a video of the process at Facebook.

8. DIORAMAS

Using Peeps as characters in a diorama, where you can let your imagination run wild, has become somewhat of an Easter tradition. Kate Ramsayer, Helen Fields, and Joanna Church put their heads together to recreate the Broadway musical Hamilton in marshmallow with a diorama that featured the lyrics to the show's opening number.

While The Washington Post has suspended its annual Peeps Diorama Contest after 10 years, other newspapers—including the Twin Cities Pioneer Press and the Washington City Paper—plus local libraries across the country are carrying on the tradition and holding Peeps diorama contests. But you don't have to enter a contest to have fun making a scene with your family.

This piece originally ran in 2017.

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The Bloody Benders, America's First Serial Killer Family
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In 1870, a group of new families moved to the wind-ravaged plains near what would become Cherryvale, Kansas. They were Spiritualists, a religion that was foreign to the homesteaders already in the new state, but locals tended to accept newcomers without asking too many questions. Two of the families moved away within a year, discouraged by the difficult conditions, and the others kept to themselves. But the Benders were different.

At first, they appeared be a normal family. John Bender, Sr., and his troupe settled near the Great Osage Trail (later known as the Santa Fe Trail) over which innumerable travelers passed on their way to the West. The older Bender, called "Pa," made a claim for 160 acres in what is now Labette County. His son John (sometimes called Thomas) claimed a smaller parcel that adjoined Pa's land, but never lived on or worked it. The Benders also included "Ma" and a daughter named Kate, who advertised herself as Spiritualist medium and healer. Ma and Pa reportedly mostly spoke German, although the younger Benders spoke fluent English.

The group soon built a one-room home equipped with a canvas curtain that divided the space into two areas. The front was a public inn and store, and the family quarters were in the back. Travelers on the trail were welcome to refresh themselves with a meal and resupply their wagons with liquor, tobacco, horse feed, gunpowder, and food. Kate, who was reportedly attractive and outgoing, also drew customers to the inn with her supposed psychic and healing abilities. These men, who usually traveled alone, often spent the night.

The trail was a dangerous place, and there were many reasons for travelers to go missing on their way out West—bandits, accidents, conflicts with Native Americans, disease. But over the course of several years, more and more people went missing around the time they passed through Labette County. It usually took time for such disappearances to draw attention—mail and news traveled slowly—but that all changed in March 1873 after a well-known physician from Independence, Kansas, named Dr. William York seemingly disappeared after getting off the train at Cherryvale. Dr. York had two powerful brothers who were determined to find out what happened to him: Colonel Edward York and Kansas Senator Alexander York.

Colonel York led an investigation in Labette County. When questioned, the Benders denied all knowledge of York's disappearance, although Ma Bender "flew into a violent passion," in the words of The Weekly Kansas Chief, when asked about a report of a woman who had been threatened with pistols and knives at their inn. Ma defended herself by claiming that the visitor had been a witch, a "bad and wicked woman, whom she would kill if ever she came near them again.”

Around the same time, the township held a meeting at the Harmony Grove schoolhouse; both male Benders were in attendance. The townsfolk decided to search every homestead for evidence of the missing—but the weather turned bad, and it was several days before a search could begin.

Eventually, a neighbor noticed starving farm animals wandering the Bender property. When he investigated the inn, he found it empty: The Benders had fled. The volunteers who later arrived for the search noted that the Benders' wagon was gone; little else had been taken from the home besides food and clothing.

Though the house was empty, all else seemed normal—until someone opened a trap door in the floor. What they found beneath it was chilling.

The trap door, located behind the curtain in the Benders' private quarters, led to a foul-smelling cellar, which was drenched with blood. Horrified, the group lifted up the cabin from its foundations and dug into the ground, yet found nothing. The investigation then turned to the garden, which was freshly plowed; neighbors recalled that the garden always seemed freshly plowed.

Working through the night, the volunteers first unearthed York's body. The back of his head had been smashed, and his throat slit. Soon, they found more bodies with similar injuries. Accounts differ about the number of bodies excavated from the site, but totals hover around a dozen. In all, the Benders may have committed as many as 21 murders. Their terrible work garnered the family only a few thousand dollars and some livestock.

Investigators later pieced together the group's modus operandi. It's believed that guests at the inn were urged to sit against the separating curtain, and while dining, would be hit on the head with a hammer from behind the curtain. Their body was then dropped into the trap door to the cellar, where one of the Benders slit their unfortunate victim's throat before stripping the body of its valuables.

One man, a Mr. Wetzell, heard this theory and remembered a time when he had been at the inn and declined to sit in the designated spot near the curtain. His decision had caused Ma Bender to become angry and abusive toward him, and when he saw the male Benders emerge from behind the cloth, he and his companion decided to leave. A traveler named William Pickering told an almost identical story.

The crimes created a sensation in the newspapers, drawing journalists and curiosity-seekers from all over the country. "Altogether the murders are without a parallel," read an account reprinted in The Chicago Tribune. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported over 3000 people at the crime scene, with more trains arriving. A book published in Philadelphia soon after the murders were discovered, The Five Fiends, or, The Bender Hotel Horror in Kansas, described how "large numbers of people arrived upon the scene, who had heard of the ... diabolical acts of bloody murder and rapacious robbery. Hardened men were moved to tears." The house in which the murders took place was disassembled and carried away piece by piece by souvenir seekers.

1873 stereographic photo of the excavated grave of a victim of the Bender murders
An 1873 photo of the excavated grave of a victim of the Bender murders

Senator York offered a $1000 reward for the Benders, and the governor chipped in another $2000, but the reward was never claimed. In the years following the sensational crimes, several women were arrested as Ma or Kate, but none were positively identified. A number of vigilante groups claimed to have found the Benders and murdered them, but none brought back proof. The older Benders were allegedly seen on their way to St. Louis by way of Kansas City, and the younger Benders were supposedly seen heading to an outlaw colony on the border of Texas and New Mexico, but no one knows what ultimately became of them.

Investigators were likely hampered by the group’s deceit: None of the Benders were actually named Bender, and the only members who were likely related were Ma and her daughter Kate. "Pa" was reportedly born John Flickinger in the early 1800s in either Germany or the Netherlands. "Ma" is said to have been born Almira Meik, and her first husband named Griffith, with whom she had 12 children. Ma was married several times before marrying Pa, but each husband before him reportedly died of head wounds. Her daughter Kate was born Eliza Griffith. John Bender, Jr.'s real name was John Gebhardt, and many who knew them in Kansas said he was Kate's husband, not her brother.

Today, nothing remains to indicate the exact location where the Bender house stood, although there is a historical marker at a nearby rest area. Though rumors still surround the case—some say Ma murdered Pa over stolen property soon after they fled, others that Pa committed suicide in Lake Michigan in 1884—after 140 years, we will probably never know what really happened to the Bloody Benders.

A version of this story originally ran in 2013.

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