The tiny fields, each surrounded by tall windbreak hedges of pittosporum, are like a series of wide chambers under a soft midwinter sky on St Mary’s, the largest island of Scilly. A group of pickers walks slowly along the rows of narcissi, stooping occasionally. ‘We’re looking for white bud,’ says Chris Blackwell, her arms full of flowers. ‘These will be ready in about a week from now, by which time they’ll be in a vase somewhere.’ According to Andrew May, one of the principal growers on the island, the first bulbs probably arrived in the window boxes of sailing schooners from the Mediterranean in the 18th century. ‘These narcissi come from a climate with a long hot summer and short cool winters,’ he says as we tour his fields. ‘What we’ve learnt over the generations here is to manage bulbs so they start early (in autumn) and keep flowering for five months.’

The flowers now most common on the islands are the 30 varieties of tazetta, which flourish in the mild climate, where frost is practically unknown. The sweetly scented white and yellow flowers, with five or more florets to a stem, have long been popular in Britain as a symbol of spring, but today, thanks to modern techniques, the first narcissi are picked as early as October. ‘We cover the fields with plastic sheeting in summer,’ says Mr May, ‘to keep them warm and dry, and then we expose them so that the bulbs think winter has come and they begin to bud.’ The cultivation of narcissi has been an important cottage industry for the islands for more than 100 years, but now imported flowers from Africa and South America are serious competitors. ‘Some 20 years ago, there were 60 growers on Scilly,’ he tells me as we drive on to visit another section of his 20 acres of flowers. ‘Now, there are 40 left, of whom only about 20 are serious growers.’ With a population of only 2,000 on the five inhabited islands, everyone tends to know everyone else, and a man at the side of the narrow lane waves us down. Mr May introduces Gordon Bird, another flower grower. Mr Bird has 20 acres and plants bulbs in less than half his land, but is cautiously optimistic. ‘These past two or three years, the wind’s been on our backs rather than our faces. I actually got a tax
return this year!’

The islands now produce about 20 million stems of narcissi a year, which bring in £3 million, less than 10% of the annual income produced by tourism. But there are hidden benefits to flower cultivation. ‘Our season starts up as the last tourists leave,’ says Mr May, whose wife, Juliette, runs rental cottages and a successful restaurant in the summer. ‘So it means that there’s continuous employment round the year for all of us, and it keeps the landscape looking good and the island busy. The Duchy of Cornwall, which is our landlord, likes that and is very helpful to us.’ Flower-growers on the islands receive no subsidies from the European Union, and with rapidly changing markets, they have to be quick on their feet to keep their niche product a market leader. Anxious to avoid total reliance on supermarkets and wholesalers, Mr May and Keith Hale, both Scilly born and bred, have set up Mainland Marketing to co-ordinate production and sales for most of the flower growers on the islands. ‘Before, your neighbour was a competitor,’ Mr Hale tells me. ‘Today, we share expertise and machinery.’

Their latest brainchild is the creation of www.scentednarcissi.co.uk. ‘Now, you can order narcissi on the internet,’ he says, showing me the stylish blue box and wrapper created by a London designer. ‘You can have 100 stems or more delivered to your door. It makes the perfect present,’ Online sales have doubled in volume each year since they started in 2005. ‘We were worried that with imported flowers available year round, our seasonal narcissi could
not compete. But orders are repeating. It makes good ecological sense, too. Our flower miles are much less than South American or Kenyan imports.’ St Agnes, one of the smallest of the off islands, lies a 20-minute rough boat ride from St Mary’s. Here, Francis Hicks’ family has lived for four centuries. A small man in his late fifties, he bubbles with enthusiasm as we drive to his fields in a tiny battered pick-up along unsurfaced lanes hardly wider than a path. ‘We have 275 acres and 65 inhabitants in total on St Agnes,’ he says, drawing up at he lighthouse-keeper’s house where he lives with his wife.

‘You have to be determined and sometimes bloody-minded to live here, but it’s worth it.’ Mr Hicks has 14 acres under bulbs, but is passionate about his flowers. ‘I grew up with candles and oil lamps,’ he says, gently shooing a large black cat off the table in his conservatory as we have coffee. ‘Now, we have the internet and 24-hour power, but I still love growing flowers, although it’s a bare living.’ Today, there are only two growers on the off islands, where a shortage of land and labour creates additional problems. ‘I rotate my fields every two years,’ Mr Hicks chuckles. ‘Ideally, you should rest land for four years at least. Pickers are also in short supply. Even the Eastern Europeans say that St Agnes is too far and the picking season too long there’s not much to do here in the evenings!’ But despite the remoteness of his island, Mr Hicks has everything the modern flower grower needs. ‘Marketing was always a problem for small growers. Now we’ve got that organised, it’s a huge relief,’ he says as we visit his farmyard. Here, in a chill room, narcissi are stored at just 1˚C or 2˚C immediately on being picked, before going to St Mary’s by boat, where, similarly, they’re stored in Mainland Marketing’s cool room. The freight ship that comes to the Isles of Scilly three times a week in winter then takes the flowers in special chilled containers to the mainland for onward transport by dedicated
couriers.

Waiting at the quay for the boat that will take me back to St Mary’s, Mr Hicks shakes my hand. ‘You know, I still get immense satisfaction from producing a good crop and a beautiful thing that I know brings pleasure to people.’ Back on St Mary’s in the flower fields, a light rain begins to fall, but the work goes on regardless. Justina Mykteike, a striking blonde from Lithuania, spent the summer waitressingin Juliette May’s restaurant, and is now an expert picker. ‘Next year, I shall go home to study, but the time here has been fun,’ she tells me. Chris Blackwell is well wrapped up, and I ask what she thinks of the season. ‘Oh, this is nothing,’ and she nods at the clouds chasing overhead. ‘You know, there’s no such thing as bad weather’ only inadequate clothing.’ To order white or yellow narcissi direct from the Isles of Scilly, telephone 01720 423767 or visit www.scentednarcissi.co.uk. Prices start from £29.95 (for a box of 100 stems), including VAT and delivery. Nick Haslam travelled to Penzance with First Great Western from Paddington (www.firstminutefares.co.uk) and flew to St Mary’s by helicopter (British International, 01736 363871; www.islesofscillyhelicopter.com). He stayed at the Star Castle hotel in Hugh Town (01720 422317; www. star-castle.co.uk).