Victoria Summerley: City Life

'It's incredible that I can buy air-freighted lilies in any London florist, but can't find flowers that grow on our doorsteps'
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The Independent Online

My house is a scented haven this week, flooded with the smells of spring. No, I haven't invested in an eye-wateringly expensive candle, or even an inexpensive air freshener that pumps out wafts of something called Blossom Time and smells like lavatory cleaner. Instead, I've treated myself to some fresh white narcissi from the Scilly Isles.

In all the fuss about food miles, we seem to have largely overlooked flower miles. Yet the UK's flower growers are fighting a tough battle against cheap imports from abroad, especially Holland, whose vast pantechnicons I see making for New Covent Garden each evening while I'm on my way home from Canary Wharf.

Price is the issue here: florists and flower stalls won't stock home-grown Paperwhites or Avalanches at £3.50 a bunch when they can flog bog-standard Dutch daffs for 50p. They say their customers won't pay the premium, which is a great shame, because given the choice between a fragrant white cloud of tazettas and a brassy band of gross yellow trumpets, I'd pay over the odds for the former any time.

For me, January without white narcissi is like Christmas without turkey or goose. So when this year I became so frustrated by a complete lack of supply in local shops and flower stalls, I decided to order direct from the Scillys for the first time.

I'd thought about it before, but I'd always been put off by the lack of variety when it came to quantity and colour.

Until four or five years ago, the Scilly farmers seemed to be a bit behind the times when it came to marketing their produce. They didn't seem to realise that if customers were being asked to pay top whack for a bunch of flowers, those customers would probably be picky, high-end consumers accustomed to ordering exactly what they wanted rather than being confronted with a job lot.

Now, though, thanks in part to the internet, the whole operation is much more sophisticated. You can order anything from a small posy to a vast sheaf of 300 stems. The site I used sells a choice of white or yellow, and other sites offer mixed bouquets and even bulbs, if you want to grow your own. A bunch of 50 narcissi costs around £15, less than a bottle of champagne (and they'll last a lot longer).

Botanically speaking, all daffodils are classed as narcissi. There are thousands of varieties – more than 25,000 – in colours that range from yellow through cream to white, with orange and peach as well, but in common English usage, "narcissi" has come to refer to the white varieties.

The sort grown on the Scillys tend to be tazettas, which are multi-headed, come in various combinations of yellow and white and incredibly fragrant. They make good garden plants (I grow "Geranium", which is white with an orange centre in my own garden), but even here in London, they don't flower noticeably early. In the milder climate of the Scillys, however, the harvest is in full swing, despite the fact that the flowers are grown outdoors. Indeed, the Paperwhite season, which runs from October to January, is just about over, but there are lots more varieties still to come until the end of March.

Unlike the Cornish daffodil growers, who are much more reliant on migrant workers, the Scilly Isles operation is still very much a cottage industry, involving 40 families who grow their flowers in tiny fields surrounded by towering hedgerows that offer protection from winter storms. No caravans full of Lithuanians here.

If the Scillys were producing cheese or cured meat or some other local delicacy, someone like Rick Stein would probably be down there doing a TV programme about them, or they'd be featured in an ad campaign by Waitrose. If they were a remote community in the Pacific, or the African sub-continent, instead of 28 miles off the Cornish coast, some rock star would be talking about them on TV.

But in trying to highlight their cause, and a way of life that's under threat from a mega-mechanised, multinational age, I'm not just standing up for a home-grown product. As with the food industry, the globalisation of the cut-flower market has cost us seasonality.

It seems incredible that I can buy protea (those South African things that look like a bog brush), or lilies, or agapanthus far more easily in a London florist at this time of year than something that's produced, quite naturally, on the doorstep. It's not as if the tropical offerings are cheap, either.

When I was a child, cut flowers in spring meant violets and primroses, as well as daffodils and hyacinths. Today, we have the ubiquitous orchid and Stargazer lilies all year round. Stiff, spray chrysanthemums are available 24/7 in lime and yellow, but the big shaggy versions, whose subtle coppery shades were a harbinger of autumn, have all but disappeared. As for roses, you can buy any colour you like, any time you like, so long as you want something that looks and smells nothing like a traditional June rose.

So I'm going to lie back, sniff my narcissi and think of England while I still can.

If you want to order narcissi direct from the Isles of Scilly, go to www.scentednarcissi.co.uk.

v.summerley@independent.co.uk

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