Isle of flowers

Daffodil pickers at Tremelethen Farm

Daffodil pickers at Tremelethen Farm - Credit: Archant

In this stunning sub-tropical climate, the Scilly Isles boasts the perfect weather for a heavenly host of flora which turns these islands into a patchwork of vibrant colours and provides work for islanders. Lesley Double joined the 2013 harvest PhotographY: Emily Whitfield-Wicks

The Isles of Scilly are patchworked with tiny fields surrounded by high protective hedges that, during the winter, are filled with flowers. Over a dozen different varieties of narcissi are grown on the Islands which bloom much earlier than in other parts of the UK, thanks to the temperate climate. The first flowers are cut in October, depending on the weather of course, and the last in March, giving a good winter crop and making flowers the main agricultural product on the Islands.

Quite often the only sign that there flower pickers working nearby are the vehicles that look abandoned, but which are used by farmers to transport workers to outlying fields. Bent double, a cloud of pickers swarm over a field, picking armfuls of flowers as they straddle the neatly laid rows. The flowers are picked whilst still in bud, so that by the time they reach the shops on the mainland, they are still at their best and will last the longest. The winter work serves a good purpose in that those who work for the summer tourist industry can often find employment out of season. There are also those who come especially to the Islands for this back-breaking winter work; locals who like working outdoors and couldn’t imagine being in a shop or office; students who wish to pick up some money to fund their studying; nomads who work hard during the winter so they can go travelling in the summer; and those who are happy to be alone, content to bow their heads and ignore all others as they pick, pick, pick all day long.

“We are out in all weathers,” explains Paddy Davey, who lives on St Mary’s, “Though we had one day off last winter when it snowed, as the flowers were frozen. Sometimes the day starts wet and miserable, and we dress up in thick jumpers and oilskins, and then it dries up and the sun comes out and we are roasting! People say that there’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing!”

Joined by Chris, who has been picking on Scilly for 35 years, and Karolina, who has returned to Scilly to pick narcissi for the last six years, as well as several others, Paddy and his team move smoothly and effortlessly across the field, gathering armful after armful of flowers along the way.

The flowers are then transported to a grading shed. At Tremelethen Farm, Sarah Hale, Debbie Crane and Kylie Carter are kept busy, grading and tying the flowers into different varieties and lengths. Tremelethen Farm, run by husband and wife Keith and Sarah Hale, is one of the largest on St Mary’s with 20 acres of flowers, so the three girls in the grading shed are kept busy.

“It’s a repetitive job, a bit like being on a conveyor belt, so we have become good at gossiping while we work!” says Kylie.

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“It’s good to be in a small room with a small group of people, and there’s a lot of laughter to keep us going,” adds Sarah.

From the grading sheds, the flowers are taken to Mainland Marketing, a packing and distribution company situated close to St Mary’s Airport.

“We work with nine farms that produce possibly 80% of the flowers grown on Scilly,” explains Mainland Marketing’s production manager David Page. “We deal with all the different varieties of narcissi which, after bunching and packing into boxes, are sent to various markets, supermarkets and wholesalers on the mainland. We send the flowers to large wholesalers, such as Covent Garden, right down to individual buyers who just want a bunch or two.”

There are between six and 10 people on the production line, many of whom are regulars who come to work at Mainland Marketing over the winter. After bunching and boxing the flowers, they are put into a cold room, set at a chilly 2°C, to keep them as fresh as possible until they are taken to the docks, loaded onto the Scillonian III, and carried across to Penzance.

A different kind of flower business takes place at Churchtown Farm on St Martin’s, where the Julian family have been sending boxes of flowers across the UK for the past 20 years.

“We used to sell the odd bunch of flowers at the farm gate,” says Zoe Julian. “Someone asked if we could post a bunch to their family on the mainland, which of course we did, and realised that a business opportunity had suddenly presented itself. Now we sell bunches of narcissi from October to April, and scented pinks from May to September. They are sent to St Mary’s and onwards to the mainland by first class post, and we have some wonderful letters of thanks from all over the country.”

“Bulbs are planted in late summer,” continues Ben Julian. “Thanks to the mild winter climate, they start growing when the first autumn rains arrive and flower between November and March. The first season’s crop is thin and poor quality, so we wait to pick until they are in their second season. The pinks are planted into grow bags and produce flowers throughout the summer.”

Whereas many areas of the UK are grey and barren over the winter months, this certainly cannot be said of the Isles of Scilly. Travelling around the islands, one can hardly ignore the huge swathes of yellow and white, a peep of colour through a gateway, or an escaped flower by the roadside. It is a sight to behold that will surely brighten the darkest day.

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