‘In this part of Tuscany we have roughly the same amount of rainfall as London’, they said, to my total disbelief. I was a 20 year old horticulture student and I’d just arrived, pale and sweaty, into the scorching heat and drought of the Mediterranean in early August.
Of course, summers in that part of the world are always hot and dry. Winters are generally cool and sunny too. Rain, when it comes, comes abundantly, falling mainly between late October and the new year and again between March and May.
Autumn can be a wonderful time in the Mediterranean. When the rains come, they fall on warm soil – you can almost hear nature sighing with relief – and many plants put on a sudden flush of growth. Years later I found out that in Provence it’s known as le petit printemps (the little spring).
Of course, as a naive and heat-stricken student I was completely unaware of all this when I arrived for my work placement at Villa Massei in the summer of 2002. As autumn progressed, I was hugely taken aback to see daffodils pushing merrily through the newly-lush grass beneath an avenue of cherry trees. It was late October, raining as if I’d gone to Wales on a bank holiday, and it was all very confusing!
And they were no ordinary daffodils. Pure white, each stem topped with an abundance of tiny flowers . They lolled around under the trees, giving off an intoxicating perfume that stopped all passers-by in their tracks. Paperwhites. I fell in love, and I’ve grown them every year since.
How to grow paperwhites
Paperwhite narcissi are a doddle to grow. Simply put some glass pebbles in a tall vase, fill it with water until the pebbles are very nearly covered, then place your bulbs on top. I find shops like TK Maxx are great for buying large vases inexpensively. The bulbs will sense the water nearby, and will soon start to grow. They’ll bloom in around 4-6 weeks – so if you time it right you can have them in bloom for Christmas. I prefer to wait a bit, and have them blooming in the dark days of January and February, when they’ll be much more appreciated.
Try to keep them cool and somewhere with as much light as possible. If they start to flop, cut some colourful willow or dogwood stems and poke them amongst the bulbs to help hold them up. If you’re lucky, the willows may root, giving you an extra freebie. A ‘little spring’ in the dead of winter – what’s not to like?