The Smell Of Christmas On St Helena
ALEX AND HIS ST JOHN’S CHRISTMAS LILIES | Sharon Henry
What is the smell of Christmas? For many it may be spicy mulled wine, roasted chestnuts or pine needles off a real Christmas tree. For those on St Helena it’s the scent of Christmas Lilies (Lilium longiflorum). Nothing signals the festive season or completes Christmas decor better than a bouquet of these elegant blooms wafting their sweet heady perfume throughout the home.
To get ourselves a bunch, we took a trip in early December to Rock Rose where one of the island’s suppliers lives. His real name is Patrick Henry, although everyone on the island calls him Alex, which is what we’ll do here.
Alex’s home is nestled within a forest. The beautiful lilies grew in abundance from his garden flower beds set around a meticulously manicured lawn. Mist swirled overhead and a light drizzle cloaked the flowers. The garden is infused with their intoxicating freesia-like fragrance. “It’s best at night when you step outside, everything smells so sweet,” Alex told us.
His pet dog barked lazily as we followed Alex to select blooms for cutting. “I grow over a thousand bunches, maybe more for the Christmas season,” he said. This venture remarkably started 14 years ago from two humble bulbs that were the remnants of the old garden plot Alex’s house is built upon.
Surrounded by the white, six-petal lilies, Alex removes yellow anthers from the flower centres. “I feel sorry for the bees,” he chuckled, “but in case the rain comes it stains the inside of the flowers and makes them mucky.” This process also prolongs the life of the blossoms and prevents any fluffy pollen staining tablecloths and furnishings.
Preparation for the crop starts early. “I dig the bulbs out when they are done after Christmas, trim the roots and store them. Then give the ground some nourishment and extra soil, otherwise, if you leave them they don’t grow well. I then re-plant the bulbs around May, June time.”Alex is a dedicated, full-time carer to his wife Angela who is confined to a wheelchair. The flowers are an enthusiast’s pursuit. “They [flowers] take a lot of work and I’ve got limited time, so I garden from about 2 to 4[pm] every day,” he said modestly. The lilies begin blooming around the end of October, which immediately prompts sales. “People are always calling, looking for a bunch. This might last up to the New Year.”
Donned in wellies Alex cut and tied generous bunches [three stems per bunch] and started loading the van to take into town for sale. “I usually get raided!” he laughed, “I have to disappoint people sometimes as I don’t always have enough.”
The going rate is £3 per bunch, an increase of 50p since last year. “Nobody has complained about the prices yet,” said Alex who is conscious of low, island wages and feels wary of over-charging. “Somebody once told me that one stem costs £5 in England. But I always think about the people, everybody is worrying about their budgets!”
Christmas lilies are more widely known as Easter Lilies, Trumpet Lilies and White Heaven. On St Helena they are also called St John’s Lilies. Reaching up to a metre tall, each leafy stem can yield clusters of up to nine buds and have a glorious spread of 30cm.
Stocks are usually exhausted by the Christmas week, triggering the whole process to start again for next year’s crop. What about Alex’s motivation to do it all over again, is it the money? “No, I just do it for the love of seeing them grow,” he answers with a smile on his face.
Fact: Christmas lilies are extremely toxic to cats and can cause kidney failure. Don’t bring lilies into a home with cats.
Sadly, since posting this story, Angela passed away in June 2015. Our condolences to Alex.