Spring flowers - daffodils flowering in Morrab Gardens

F for the First Day of Spring: Julia Grigg's Morrab Miscellany

In this Morrab Miscellany, Julia Grigg celebrates the First day of Astronomical Spring, and a quintessentially English piece of music inspired by the sound of the First Cuckoo. And Spring in Cornwall is not complete without our flowers – particularly the daffodils that are sent ‘up country’ to give others a foretaste of the unfolding season.

F is for FIRST.

On 20 March we celebrate the first day of spring.

The vernal equinox: hurrah! the sun crossing the celestial Equator, heading north in the sky.

The First Cuckoo in Spring

Music is called for – and what more appropriate for celebration than Delius’ On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring?

This short lyrical piece with its folk song resonances perfectly renders the feelings of anticipation of renewal and flourishing that come with the turn of the seasons.

Frederick Delius (1862-1934), an Englishman born in Bradford of German ancestry, composed it in 1912. One of a series of idylls described as ‘exquisite nature studies’ with ‘painterly’ qualities, and always considered quintessentially English, the piece has become a beloved standard in the concert repertory.

Photograph of Frederick Delius, composer of 'On Hearing the First Cuckoo in Spring'
Frederick Delius, 1862-1934 Photo: The Delius Society

Delius, an atheist whose adult life had been spent in France, nevertheless requested he be buried in an English country churchyard ‘where people could place wild flowers.’ His wish granted, his grave is to be found at St Peter’s, Limpsfield in Surrey.

First sightings in the Scilly Isles

The cuckoo is migratory. Wintering in the Congo and having flown over 4000 miles north to cross the Sahara, its landfall in the UK is usually from early April.

The Scilly Isles is often where first sightings are recorded.

To represent the repeated sequences of the male bird’s distinctive mating call Delius used the oboe, strings and clarinet.

My most vivid memory of hearing the bird in the wild was a time in southern France, when walking, heat-hazed, in the open country beneath Mont Ste Victoire outside Aix-en-Provence. I now know the answering two-note call from far across the bleached landscape was a rival male, not the female being sought (whose reply is described as a ‘rich, bubbling chuckle.’)

It’s not true – albeit an oft-repeated myth – that the The Times newspaper’s Letters Column faithfully prints the claim by whoever first hears the cuckoo in a given year.

However, there is a British birding website keen to hear from you on this subject.

Register your hearing/sighting at www.birdspot.co.uk, a comprehensive platform ‘for people who simply enjoy caring for the birds in their garden or seeing them in their local park or nature reserve.’

Flower Farmers of west Cornwall and Scilly

F is also for FLOWER FARMERS, of whom there are many in the vicinity of Morrab Gardens. Rich local soil and mild climate provide ideal conditions for early flowering of the blossoms.

Just outside Penzance at Ludgvan, for example, the spring harvest of Varfell daffodils entails the picking by hand of 500,000,000 stems – yes, that’s 500 million! – between December and early April. At over 3,500 acres, the farm is the world’s largest producer of daffodils.

This spring the UK’s Covid 19 restrictions add a desperately challenging dimension to the ongoing post-Brexit worry about securing an adequate labour force for the picking and packing the blooms at Varfell and Cornwall’s other farms. Traditionally migrant labour, often Eastern European, works the harvest. In 2021 farmers are having to house their labour on site to ensure those pickers they have been able to employ in the post-Brexit context can comply with Covid regulations.

Narcissi or daffodils?

An admission: misled, I’ve always thought of narcissi and daffodils as different. That (the ones I much prefer) those late-flowering, whitey-cream-coloured, strongly scented flowers with their ruffled petals, are narcissi. And that the ones with the traditional yellow trumpets are daffodils.

But no, what is correct is this: the name Narcissus, being the genus, refers to all daffodils. As the Latin or botanical name, it provides us with a specific description of the plant and its characteristics.

On the other hand, daffodil is one of the common names used to describe some of the many members (or species) of the Narcissus genus. Another such common name is jonquil.

Narcissi were brought by Mediterranean traders to Britain as early as the 1200s, arriving perhaps in Cornwall via traders from Greece seeking tin.
The flower’s name derives, in fact, from a Greek myth in which one day a very handsome young man by this name came to a pond. Seeing his reflection in its waters he fell in love – with himself. Bemoaning that the deep love he was experiencing could never be returned, the foolish youth tragically killed himself. A flower having sprung up and bloomed where he lay, it was named Narcissus.

Fragrant Flowers by post

Travel to Cornwall problematic this spring for visits to sample first hand the displays in Morrab Gardens or The Lost Gardens of Heligan near St Austell (where 100,000 blooms bring its Woodland Walk alive with golden colour), take a look here: www. scentednarcissi.co.uk – and arrange instead for your home to be perfumed with the FRAGRANCE of narcissi from the Scilly Islands.

Sending the first flowers 'up country'.  A family in Scilly seated around a table in a cottage, sorting and packing flowers ready for shipping to the mainland.
Packing flowers on Scilly, 19th century Photo by Gibsons of Scilly

Bringing together nine family farms on the islands of St Mary’s and St Agnes, the company, founded in 1882, specialises in mail order delivery of its 15 varieties between October and April.


‘The garden became my study’

For forty years from 1966, Finlay (1925-2006), Scottish poet, writer and artist, created a 7 acres avant garde ‘Arcadian’ garden featuring water, expanses of heather and 300 artworks: concrete poetry, stone and metal sculpture and two temples at Little Sparta near Edinburgh. The garden is open for limited public visits. It has been called ‘one of the most significant gardens in Britain’. www.littlesparta.org.uk

The garden at Little Sparta was first established in 1962 and developed as a ‘garden poem'.  Here, drifts of heather and a ring of young birch trees surround an engraved stone tablet
Encouraging contemplation, sinuous paths at Little Sparta lead to an engraved stone tablet through a patterning of heather, grass and gravel set against the Scottish moorland landscape beyond.
By yellow book ltd – Grove above Lochan Eck, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7352082

Read more of Julia Grigg’s Morrab Miscellany

Leave a Reply