The daffodils are blooming. In the sweet March breezes their yellow cups once again are swaying. Along the roadsides, in the abandoned flower fields, bedside ponds and in the low pine forests, they nod dreamily, like old men dozing in spring sunlight.
There always will be daffodils in Gloucester County. The anonymous men and women who farmed here in the early 1600s saw to that. They brought with them these soft reminders of English springs they never expected to see again and planted the bulbs everywhere. Now their daffadowndillies, as they were sometimes called, grow wild, bobbing in the backwash of passing cars.
For a while -- just 30, 40, 50 years ago -- people here thought that Gloucester and adjoining Mathews County would end up carpeted from corner to corner with daffodils. That was when the region was one of the world's major commercial producers. Old timers say that anywhere from 700 to 1,000 acres here were devoted to the bloom, and during the first weeks of spring truckload after truckload of fresh-cut daffodils would find its way to Washington, Baltimore and, most often of all, New York.
Now that, too, is passing. Today perhaps only 150 acres are planted in daffodils.
"'Fair daffodils, we weep to see/You haste away so soon.' I love those lines," says retired daffodil grower Katharine Heath, reading from an English poem to the flower written about the time the first ships landed at nearby Jamestown. "But they make me sad . . . I don't like anyone to cut them in our field anymore. Then there's less of them to see."
A few miles away, Constance Holcombe watches her ailing 85-year-old father, Allan Hicks, who has grown daffodils since he was 18, working in a low shed filled with the scent of thousands of fresh-picked flowers. All around him, a half-dozen women, their hands lightly dusted with golden pollen, are packing the blossoms into boxes.
"It's dying here," says Holcombe sadly. "It used to be in Gloucester and Mathews you could drive anywhere and see fields of flowers. Now you see lots of abandoned patches. You're lucky if you can get 40 cents a bunch."
Daffodil farmers here shake their heads and concede it's the old story of supply and demand. Growers in Washington state can produce better flowers and they have formed cooperatives that enable them to ship their blooms cheaply across country. Coupled with that came a change in people's tastes 20 years or so ago.
"People began to be more prosperous by the end of the '50s," says Katharine Heath's son Brent, the third generation of Heaths to farm daffodils in Gloucester County. "They say that a daffodil was a poor man's rose. Maybe it's true."
Once the Heaths and Hicks were giants according to the standards of the daffodil industry. While the Heaths concentrated on growing bulbs, the Hicks produced cut flowers. At one time, Allan Hicks had flower farms not only in Gloucester but in North Carolina and elsewhere along the East Coast.
Today, Hicks farms about 40 acres and the Heaths five.
"Since I've been farming, we've cut back on our business tremendously," says Heath. "
"At one time your father had 350 acres of bulb," his mother reminds him.
"Yeah," Heath, 36, says, rousing himself. "You know, when I was a boy, you could get excused from a week of school in the spring for picking flowers. Not anymore."
From late February, when the earliest bloomers first appear, to early April, daffodils brighten the corners of this Chesapeake Bay county. Their long-lasting blossoms, which most frequently consist of six petals surrounding a brightly colored cup, are not always easy to find, however. While wild ones gather in small clumps along roadsides or streams, many of the cultivated daffodils are grown just off sandy back roads in fields protected by scrub pine, and those are harvested just as fast as their flowers bloom.
Heath says the industry got its start around the turn of the century when the county's produce was shipped by backwater steamers from the county's bay inlets to Baltimore and New York.
"The story has it that a Mrs. Mordecai Smith took to putting baskets of the wild daffodils on the steamers for sale in the cities, too," he says. "The markets liked it, so she hired the local children to pick them for her."
About that time, Heath's grandfather, who lived in New York, developed a taste for the fresh melons that were being shipped from Gloucester. That eventually led him to visit here -- and he fell in love with the countryside and flowers.
"He bought an old estate called Auburn. Six hundred acres and a manor, and he paid $10,000," Heath says."
Heath's grandfather started raising daffodil bulbs and selling them to the locals who still were harvesting the wild ones, enabling them to raise better daffodil crops. When in the mid-1920s, the federal government clamped an embargo on daffodil imports from Holland, the local industry received the boost it needed to make it. Today, many locals still take off a few weeks each spring to work in the daffodil fields picking flowers for a wage of 5-cents a bunch.
"I been picking daffodils for Mr. Hicks each spring for 37 years," says 50-year-old Fannie Diggs Ware. "I'm a crab picker. That's my regular job. But right now the crabs are always scarce, so I pick the flowers."
Ware is acknowledged by all as the premier daffodil picker. "One time she picked 2,000 bunches [there are 10 flowers to a bunch] in one day," marvels Holcombe.
"The trick is to walk down the isles [of flowers] and pick two rows of flowers at a time, one with each hand," says Ware, who also picked a record 100 pounds of crab meat in one day. "I guess what I have . . . well, that's a gift from God. Last year, I went to 1,400 bunches, but it was 20 years ago I picked 2,000. It's real hard on the back, you know."
Today, Heath's bulb raising operation, called the Daffodil Mart, has a national clientele of small gardeners. He and his wife, Becky, raise about 2,000 varieties of daffodils and net about $30,000 a year. After expenses are paid, they pocket $10,000 or so.
But Heath isn't in it for the money.
"Want to see something neat? You see this little flower?" asks Heath, stopping by a tiny blue wildflower with slender petals nearly hidden by the daffodils around a pond. "It's called a spring beauty. It was first identified by John Clayton in the 1600s. He was clerk of the Gloucester courthouse.."
Money isn't Holcombe's motivation either.
"I just want to keep it the business going," she says. "Someone should always be growing daffodils in Gloucester County."