A painting of the front of the farmhouse that Dorothy White Fretwell planted with daffodils for decades.

Gardening Green with Doug: Grandmother’s Daffodils Transplanted to Become Treasured Family Heirlooms

by Doug Oster


May 13, 2020

It was an Instagram of early morning daffodils backlit by the sun, which triggered memories for Kathleen Jae, inspiring her to write me. Her mother grew up on a small dairy farm in Allison Park. The farm went up for sale in the late 1990’s after Kathleen’s grandparents passed away. “It broke my heart,” she says of letting the farm go. “Lots of memories there.” The area around the farm had been developed already and the family decided to try and keep the property together by selling to a single buyer, even knowing that meant turning down a big payday from developers. “You'd never know there was ever a farm there, says Kathleen, to look at it now.”

Her grandmother, Dorothy White Fretwell loved daffodils and began planting them in the front yard, starting around the 1920’s. “Just beyond the white pillared front porch,” Kathleen remembered fondly. “Two kinds, the big yellow ones we're all familiar with, and Pheasant Eye,” she added.

Every year Dorothy would plant more, they also multiplied on their own, she always referred to them at jonquils. “In the spring, if you stood on that porch, it was a sight to behold,” reminisced Kathleen. “Breathtakingly spectacular, a sea of daffodils as far as your gaze could take you. What started as a handful of bulbs so long ago had become countless thousands.” 

When visiting the old barn down and to the left of the house, the back entrance was the only way to get in because if you stepped off the front porch, you’d be walking into that field of daffodils. “My grandmother either never bothered to form a pathway or, if she did, the daffodils had long ago multiplied beyond any idea of passage,” she says.  “Either way, I never thought to ask. I was far too enthralled with the masterpiece she had created. One could cut enormous bouquets and that area would still look untouched,” added Kathleen happily.

She was flooded with memories when the farm was sold, but thought first about the daffodils, her mind was filled with hard questions. What would happen to them? Would they go on, appreciated for years to come, left in place for future generations to gaze at, wondering who put them there and when? Or would they be yet another casualty of the small farmer? “Either way, I couldn't let the farm go without taking some of my grandmother's beloved Jonquils with me,” she says proudly. 

A yellow, trumpet daffodil
This is the photo Doug posted on Instagram which inspired Kathleen to write to him.

She talked to her mother about her plan to get the bulbs, who turned her over to Aunt Arlene, who agreed to meet Kathleen at the farm before the official closing. “I came armed on a summers day with a shovel, a pitchfork and a box of lawn and leaf bags,” Kathleen recounts. “As I unloaded my car, my aunt said ‘What in the world are you going to do with all of that?’”  "Dig daffodils," I said. 

Not the easiest task, as the wispy green daffodil foliage had long since faded away when spring gave way to summer. Her aunt wondered aloud, how would she find them? “I grinned at her and said it didn't matter,” said Kathleen. “All I had to do was step off the porch and start digging…anywhere.”

She dug and bagged, dug more, filling the huge bags with bulbs until not another one would fit in her car, as she finished the sky turned red when the day faded away. Finally,
Aunt Arlene put her arm around Kathleen’s shoulders and whispered "Honey, it's time to go. You can't dig up the entire farm and take it with you." 

“I started to cry, Kathleen says, because she realized long before I did that this was exactly what I was trying to do. My Aunt was a smart cookie.”

The bulbs went to siblings, cousins and of course her mother, who also favored “jonquils” above all flowers. The blooms can be seen scattered all around the South Hills. 

“When I moved to Wexford two years ago, Kathleen says, I naturally dug mine up and brought them with me, where they just finished blooming here, once again closer to their original home.”

When they bloom today, she’s transported back to another time as she reflects on the farm and the family matriarch who made it so special. “I picture my grandmother as a young woman, Kathleen says, patiently planting her beloved jonquils year after year, never once considering that she was creating not only a thing of exquisite beauty, but wonderful memories and a precious legacy for a granddaughter yet to be born for decades to come. Lighting a spark for a deep and abiding love to grow things of her own, the granddaughter who tried, 70 years later, to dig it all up and take it with her.  I feel her gentle smile envelop me every spring. It's everything.”

Dorothy White Fretwell referred to her daffodils as jonquils

Doug Oster writes a weekly column for The Green Voice Weekly Newsletter.

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