Spring Ahead: Daffodils and the Va. Tidewater

By Adrienne Cook
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The gold of Gloucester County and its tiny neighbor to the east, Mathews, isn't the kind that once plugged cavities in bad teeth. And it's not likely to qualify as bling, though the avid gardener might argue that point.

Rather, it's found in the proliferation of daffodils, millions of them, once so widespread it earned Gloucester the nickname "Daffodil Capital of America." Spurred by warm Tidewater soils, the sunny blooms begin appearing as early as January along banks and roadsides, amid trees and meadows. Peak season -- marked by the sheer volume of form, shape and color (most in golds and whites) of the daffodils -- occurs from now to late April.

Gloucester marks the blizzard of blooms March 29-30 with its annual Daffodil Festival; last year's was limited to a single Saturday and drew about 15,000 visitors.

But the area's attraction to visitors isn't limited to gardeners. With 214 miles of shoreline in a county with a mere 87 square miles of land mass, Mathews is almost an island, and Gloucester boasts so many creeks and tributaries and so much riverfront -- not to mention bayfront -- that no part of it is ever more than a 15- or 20-minute drive from water. The importance of water to both counties is evident in the number of marinas, fishing boats and recreation opportunities that make up the bulk of the tourism scene.

Head to the region in the next few weeks, and you can drive winding country roads to view wild daffodils, wander the banks of the many tributaries that snake deep into each county, or take in bay breezes and seabirds from one of the public beaches. For artists, photographers and birders, a network of walking and biking trails crisscross Virginia's "river country," as it is referred to in these parts, and a water trail offers special sights for those exploring by boat.

The history of daffodils in Gloucester and Mathews -- part of the Powhatan nation, which gave us its most famous daughter, Pocahontas -- began with the arrival of English settlers who brought with them mementos of home, small bulbs secreted in the hems of their dresses. According to local lore, the women planted them in the clearings around their homesteads; the bulbs found the sandy, loamy soils and long springs, cooled by miles of waterfront, a hospitable environment. It wasn't until after the Civil War that the flowers were considered anything other than a welcome but otherwise unremarkable spring event.

The first person who recognized their value was one Eleanor Linthicum Smith, who in the late 1800s hired children to pick the wildflowers for 10 cents per 100. She then placed the short-stemmed blossoms upright in baskets, covered them with damp cloth and shipped them to Baltimore, where they were distributed to florists. Other entrepreneurs got into the act, planting bulbs each year wherever there was an available piece of land. Sales of Tidewater-grown flowers expanded up and down the East Coast.

A Northerner who had spent time in the Netherlands took the backyard enterprises to the next level. Charles Heath, son of a wealthy New England family, was visiting Gloucester in 1916; enchanted by the county's meadows of gold, he surmised that if the wild daffodils did well there, the large-bulb varieties that Holland was famous for would also thrive. He moved to Gloucester and began importing and then developing new varieties of bulbs, and soon fields came alive in the spring with white and gold, and all-white, and pheasant eyes, and tall ochre varieties, and slender chartreuse types.

Charles Heath's grandson Brent Heath and Brent's wife, Becky, continue the business launched nearly a century ago. Today it's called Brent and Becky's Bulbs, and the Heaths' fields are one of the most popular destinations of the festival.

The wild daffodils do get a little help. Every fall, festival volunteers, garden club members and beautification committee appointees hand out bulbs to shop owners who plant them around signs and stoops, under windows and along parking lots. Last fall, they gave out more than 50,000 bulbs.

Children no longer are let out of class to go flower picking, but schools maintain the tradition by planting new bulbs each year on their grounds, constantly expanding the number and varieties that visitors see when they travel to Gloucester. With an estimated 6,000 daffodil varieties available worldwide, it's impossible to count how many can be seen in the gardens and byways of Gloucester.

Suffice it to say that their numbers are more than enough to ensure that every year, gold will rise from the ground.

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