WHERE HAVE ALL THE FLOWERS GONE? MAINTAINING THE LIVING MEMORIAL OF DAFFODIL HILL; Kent State Today; May 6, 2022
Daffodil Hill, on Kent State University’s Kent Campus, is part of the May 4, 1970 site, which was designated as a National Historic Landmark in 2016.
The cascade of flowers on the hill overlooking Kent State Commons was part of a concept by Kent State Professor Emeritus Brinsley Tyrrell that he submitted for the university’s 1985 design competition for a May 4 Memorial. Tyrrell also created the “Legend of the Iron Hoop” sculptures located behind Henderson Hall and the “Behind the Brain Plaza” near Merrill Hall.
Originally, the hill displayed more than 58,000 daffodils. In the 32 years since this living art installation was first planted, Kent State’s grounds crew has maintained the site, fertilizing the ground and adding new bulbs each year. Nature, and other factors, however, have made it difficult to guarantee that there will be a full display of flowers in bloom in early May each year.
Inspiration takes root
Tyrrell was teaching sculpture on campus on May 4, 1970. He witnessed the shootings and their aftermath. “As part of my proposal, I wanted to plant 58,175 spring flowers all around the memorial, to symbolize the U.S. service people killed in Vietnam, which I felt was the whole background to the whole issue,” Tyrell said, in a 2019 interview. His vision for the memorial was that it should bring people together and help them heal.
The competition rules, however, required entrants to be U.S. citizens. While Tyrrell was a legal, permanent resident, he was not a U.S. citizen at the time. Tyrrell’s proposal had to be dismissed.
Unity and growth
At the time, there was controversy around the memorial. Some protesters, mostly veterans, felt that a memorial to anti-war protesters would be disrespectful of those who had fought in the Vietnam War. On the other side of the issue, others felt that the memorial was intended to honor those who had protested the war, not the soldiers who had fought in it. Tyrrell felt that his idea could do both, so while the memorial was being built, he submitted a revised proposal to then-President Michael Schwartz. “I went and saw the president. I handed him this proposal to plant 58,175 spring bulbs, which turned into daffodils. He liked it. I guess he liked flowers, but he also thought it might be a way to bring everyone together.”
As the bulbs were being planted, Tyrrell met some of the Vietnam veterans who were against building the memorial. “They said they couldn’t object anymore because, I think, Kent State was the first university to actually do anything for the Vietnam veterans, which is who the daffodils were for. So, in that sense, it was all a big success,” he said.
In spring 1990, 58,175 daffodils bloomed on the hill – one flower to honor each of the U.S. service members who lost their lives in Vietnam. The site was marked with a flat, granite marker, which over the years was accidentally buried, lost and then rediscovered – most recently in fall 2020 during the annual bulb planting. It has been cleared and ongoing maintenance is planned to keep it uncovered. Installing a marker that is more easily visible has also been discussed.
Maintaining a living memorial
“We rely totally on Mother Nature and what she gives us to handle throughout the year,” said Rebekkah Berryhill, grounds manager for Kent State University. She oversees all ground-related maintenance of the Kent Campus. Berryhill began working with the grounds crew while she was a student at Kent State in the 1990s and says she “ended up falling in love with working outside.” She worked in the department before becoming its interim manager and now, manager. “I’m a Flash through and through,” said Berryhill.
The original intent of the installation was that the field of daffodils would bloom in late April and early May to coincide with campus May 4 observations. But 32 years later, because of climate change, the flowers have begun to bloom earlier. “We’ve changed our hardiness zone within the past 15 years. So, that tells you that some things are really changing,” said Berryhill. “Now, this part of Ohio is a warmer zone that it was.”
The intent on the hill is to have a mass of all-yellow daffodils. Currently there is a mix of jumbo King Alfred, jumbo Dutch Master and Jonquil Quail varieties. Occasionally, Berryhill notices some white and peach-faced daffodils in the mix. “We can get some changes just due to a bee buzzing around, getting a bit of pollen and cross-pollinating,” she said.
Addressing the myths
There are several, persistent misconceptions about Daffodil Hill that Berryhill wanted to address. One is that the campus squirrels and other wildlife eat the plants and bulbs. “Thankfully, daffodils aren’t something that most wildlife eat, but we battle with the squirrels and chipmunks,” said Berryhill. “When they store their nuts as their winter food cache, they may interrupt the growth cycle of the daffodils by removing some of the soil on top of the bulbs. Then, they’re not as insulated.”
“We’re constantly battling nature,” said Berryhill. And also human nature: “The people who walk through campus see a burst of color and are drawn to it. So, we’ll see a young man plucking a bunch of daffodils and handing them to his beau. Or someone will stop and pick one and put it in their hair or behind their ear.”
“Another thing I would love to stress is that I often see articles that say that the Grounds Department doesn’t let the daffodils grow up; they mow the hill,” said Berryhill. “Never in my time in the department have we taken the hill down until late June or early July. Then, the grass and everything is growing 18 inches high!”
This distinction is important because, after blooming, daffodils need time to photosynthesize to feed their bulbs for the coming year. “We definitely have good practices as far as making sure things come up each year,” Berryhill said.
Berryhill says her team is always out fertilizing the plants and every October and November planting bulbs. Volunteers have also helped with the annual planting. “In the past, we’ve worked with some of the fraternities and sororities, ROTC, Biology Club and others,” she said. “But on some days, we’d say, ‘We have 15 slots, two time periods and 5,000 bulbs,’ and then only have two people show up.”
Currently the grounds department absorbs the cost of maintaining Daffodil Hill. “At one time we were able to help with the cost through a campus enhancement fund or various beautification projects, said Berryhill. “But there hasn’t been a big pool of money necessarily strictly dedicated to the replanting of the daffodils.”
Restoring Daffodil Hill
So, what would it take to restore Daffodil Hill to its original strength of 58,000+?
Over the past five years, Berryhill estimates that her department has put in about 35,000 daffodils, including 14,000 that her team planted while the campus was closed due to COVID-19.
“Some extra funding and labor would help to keep us functioning and keep it at that,” said Berryhill. “I really feel like there needs to be something larger than just my department going forward. I don’t know that we have the resources to do it all.”
Getting nearly 58,000 daffodils to bloom around the same time could be possible, Berryhill says, with the extra help of volunteers. “We can plant them in chunks. We had a decent show over the past two or three years, but we didn’t necessarily line up with the full bloom exactly May 4. It just doesn’t do that.
Volunteers wouldn’t need to have any special skills or “a green thumb,” says Berryhill. “Daffodils are super easy to plant and hard to mess up.”
The enduring message of Daffodil Hill
Berryhill said, “That Brinsley Tyrrell was able to accomplish this – it’s amazing. It’s a beautiful way to honor so many lives. I have a great appreciation for him.”
When asked about what he felt the message of Daffodil Hill could express to students on campus today, and in the future, Tyrrell said, “Well I suppose there are two messages. One is don’t forget. Don’t forget the students and what happened, but it’s also don’t forget the Vietnam War. Then, flowers, I think, are always a sign of hope, a sign of a new beginning, a sign of renewal. So, maybe that. I mean, don’t forget the past, don’t forget the lessons one hopes of being learned from it, but it’s all going forward.”
WRITTEN BY: PHIL SOENCKSEN