THE ST JOHN’S CHRISTMAS LILY | Sharon Henry
What is the smell of Christmas? For many, Christmas scents may be mulled wine, roasted chestnuts or that real Christmas tree smell (sniff). For those on St Helena it is the Christmas Lily aka Lilium longiflorum fragrance. Nothing signals the festive season or completes Christmas home decor better than a bouquet of these elegant blooms wafting their sweet heady perfume throughout the house.
How To Make Your House Smell Like Christmas
To get ourselves a bunch of these gorgeous Christmas flowers, we took a trip in early December to Rock Rose where one of the island’s suppliers lives. His name is Patrick Henry, although everyone on the island calls him Alex.
Alex’s home is nestled within a forest where Christmas lilies grows abundantly in flower beds set around a manicured lawn. The lily garden is infused with their intoxicating freesia-like fragrance. “It’s best at night when you step outside, everything smells so sweet,” Alex tells us.
The Smell of Christmas on St Helena
His pet dog barks lazily as we follow Alex to select blooms for cutting. “I grow over a thousand bunches or more for the Christmas season,” he says. This venture began, remarkably 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 chuckles, “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.
When To Plant Lilies
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.”
Hmmm Those Christmas Smells
Alex is a dedicated, full-time carer to his wife Angela who is confined to a wheelchair. The flowers are an enthusiast’s pursuit. “The flowers take a lot of work and I’ve got limited time, so I garden from about 2 to 4pm every day,” he says modestly. The Christmas 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 for a Christmas flower delivery into town. “I usually get raided!” he laughs, “I have to disappoint people sometimes as I don’t always have enough.”
Christmas Flower Bouquets For All Budgets
Christmas lilies are more widely known as Easter Lilies, Trumpet Lilies and White Heaven. We call them St John’s Lilies on Saint Helena. Reaching up to a metre tall, each leafy stem can yield clusters of up to nine buds and have a glorious spread of 30cm.
On St Helena the going rate is £3 per bunch, an increase of 50p since last year. “Nobody has complained about the prices yet,” says 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!”
Alex’s flower stocks are usually exhausted by the Christmas week, triggering the whole process to start again for next year’s crop.
And, what is 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.
Alex’s St John’s lilies really does bring the smell of Christmas on St Helena.
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.