I got a letter this week from Churchtown in the Scillies. I love this letter – it's one I get every year in November, as the Julian family gears up its daffodil farm for a winter of blooming and picking, boxing and despatching.
Narcissi start to flower earlier in the Scillies than anywhere else in Britain, thanks to the Gulf Stream, so Churchtown has gloriously scented stems from November. About 90,000 cardboard containers of flowers leave the Isles of Scilly every year, by Royal Mail boat and then plane to Land's End, hopefully some of them wending their way direct to me. But while I wait, somehow this letter full of pictures of the Julians and their employees at work reminds me that spring is now definitely on its way.
I'm not the only soul sitting around waiting to be cheered up by cheeky yellow flowers. Noel Kingsbury, environmental writer and garden designer, has just published his hymn to the narcissi family, Daffodil: The Remarkable Story of the World's Most Popular Spring Flower (£17.99, Timber), which makes it clear just how very Cornish the daffodil story is. Kingsbury is fascinated by the breeders who have brought out the variety from the wild plant, allotting scrupulous, well-told essays to each of them.
It's not all West Country, though. Turns out that even in the UK, Lincolnshire has more acres planted with daffs than Cornwall. And starting (much) further back, Kingsbury kicks off with the flowers found in the tombs of the pharaohs. Ramses II, aka "The Great" (pretty much the Muhammad Ali of Pharaohs), was buried with daffodil bulbs over his eyes, likely to have been white Tazettas. Intensely fragrant, the Tazettas today include some of the most fun you'll get from a spring bulb: Bridal Crown, with soft-white double flowers, is a great choice (£3 for 10 at peternyssen.com). Daffs of the pharaohs! Now there's an idea for a Christmas present.
But inevitably the tale does wend its way back Kernow way. Kingsbury brings to life the stiff-necked Cornish breeder Percival Williams who created "Carlton", the most-grown daffodil of all time, the one that fills the seaside fields before Mother's Day each spring. "Carlton" is as close to being completely reliable as a bulb can be, and you can get 25 for £9.99 from Suttons now if you act quickly (suttons.co.uk).
Williams' philosophy was that you should always examine the daffodil flower from the back first. Obsessed with habit and stance as well as good looks, he created many sturdy and disease-free narcissi varieties which today lend themselves to commercial growing. His son kept up the tradition: Michael bred "St Keverne", an unrepentantly yellow daffodil named after one of the Lizard's prettiest parishes.
Having discovered a bit about Michael Williams, I found it magical to realise he also created "Jack Snipe", a tiny daffodil in my favourite colour combination, a yolk-yellow centre surrounded with bright, starlike white perianth petals. "Jack Snipe" clumps up beautifully over the years in a sunny spot, and gives that fabulous effect of a whole bouquet of blooms growing from the earth.
There's a lot in the book, too, about the arcane world of daffodil societies, breeders and registrations. Kingsbury has a wonderful way of telling his tales, so that details you'd expect to be tedious come to life. Spectacular images of the Cornish sea, overlooked by daffodil fields, make this a perfect gift for the gardening enthusiast. Plus I had to laugh when I read that, due to their sandy maritime soils, the Scilly farmers concentrate on growing the Mediterranean Tazettas. So when I open my Churchtown box, I'll be sniffing the daffodils of the pharaohs!
A distinctly satisfying thought.
Four more daffodils to plant
Very inappropriately named after a shy little brown wading bird, this lovely bright flower will lift your spirits. £7.99 for 10 bulbs, suttons.co.uk
A perfect daffodil: tall, large-cupped, eye-catching and good at clumping up over the years. £4.95 for 12 bulbs, marshalls-seeds.co.uk
Another lovely Tazetta, with single petals and pure sunlight-orange centres. £2.90 for 10 bulbs, peternyssen.com
The easy route
Let the Julians do all the work and send a box of 60 scented narcissi stems, wrapped in tissue paper, for just £20 including postage. scillyflowers.co.uk