February 25th 2017, Blenheim Palace
Our first wedding of the new year. Still winter but with an inkling of an advancing spring, February being the first borderline on a map of the seasons.
Early prunus blossom, narcissus, hellebores, snowdrops, tulips, fritillaria, ranunculus, jasmine vines, lilac, wild tentacles of trailing holly. Black widow iris. Spiraea, which brings to mind windswept beaches, lonely gorseland, Wuthering Heights. I can’t get enough of those scratchy, spindly stems and the tiny, fairy world that is revealed on closer inspection of their miniature flowers.
The first flowers of spring are intensely nostalgic for me. After the dearth of winter when the gardens sleep, an unproductive and dissatisfying time compared to the other seasons, those first narcissus are like discovering a pool of cool water in the desert. Immersion in their creamy petals is one of the greatest, vaguely narcotic, pleasures of the floral year (indeed the name narcissus is believed to be derived from the Greek word for intoxicated). Try as I might, though, I cannot encapsulate the scent of narcissi - in this case, the Scilly White variety - in word form. Lemons marinated in honey? A perfume that is a distillation of sweetness and yet, when lingered over, fully inhaled, also faintly bitter - they cause the nose to ache at the bridge. Searching for a concise description of their perfume, I am reminded of a passage in A Natural History of the Senses where the author, Diane Ackerman, describes imploring her mother to describe the scent of orange blossom (the mother similarly struggles):
My mother once told me about a drive she and my father took through the Indian River orange groves in Florida when the trees were thick with blossom and the air drenched with fragrance. It overwhelmed her with pleasure. “What does it smell like?” I asked. “Oh, it’s delightful, an intoxicating, delightful smell.” “ But what does that smell smell like?” I asked again. “Like oranges?” If so, I might buy her some eau de cologne, which has been made of neroli (attar of oranges), bergamot (from orange rind), and other minor ingredients since its creation in the eighteenth century, when it was the favourite of Madame du Barry. (Although the use of neroli itself as a perfume probably goes back to the days of the Sabines.) “Oh, no,” she said with certainty, “not at all like oranges. It’s a delightful smell. A wonderful smell.” “Describe it,” I begged. And she threw up her hands in despair.
To me, the aroma of these narcissi conjures a muddled childhood memory of an Easter egg hunt in spring rain, a Japanese garden with a red pagoda, stumbling through a maze-like world of shrubs, ornamental blossom, the sensation of blurred vision (petals or raindrops?). Memories of accompanying scents trigger, too - rosemary, woodsmoke, wet slate. How strange that two and a half decades on, when I inhale the fragrance of spring narcissi, the years fall away and I am running along leafy paths searching for the glint of metallic-blue foil among moss, for a coveted egg.
Holly and Ollie were married at St Aloysius in Oxford and held an evening dinner in the Orangery at Blenheim Palace; a beautiful primrose-yellow space of glittering glass and mirrored angles, arched alcoves and classical sculpture overlooking the Duke of Marlborough’s Italian gardens.
There is something particularly romantic and glamorous about an evening wedding in winter. Many couples chose to be married during the summer months, or autumn, hoping for warmth and light, but in the winter the early dusk and even rain or snow only serves to make an indoor dinner more intimate - weather isn’t a concern because it isn’t a major factor, which removes the stress of monitoring scudding clouds or worrying whether or not to carry an umbrella - it is February, in England; carrying a brolly is a prerequisite. There is a certain cosiness to focussing on the lighting, on the food, the flowers, the music. I’ve always longed to decorate a spring wedding with tureens of flowering spring bulbs and moss - and thought what a beautiful effect that would create with dancing-flamed candles.
The narcissi, pale as moonlight, were massed in pretty cut-glass footed vases, jasminum polyanthum scribbling the edges with their shell-pink buds and spidery vine tendrils. We discovered these vases in Holland last year and brought them back. They are some of my favourite vessels for small-headed flowers because they are so elegant and dainty; we’d buy them en masse if we could, but like every good thing, they were a limited line and we had the last of them. I am conflicted about glass vessels generally, unless they are sparklingly clean, unmarked by those misty rings they can acquire, and the stems beneath the waterline have to look attractive, either because they are orderly or interestingly shaped.
This palette of colours and materials was utterly refreshing after the heavy, sumptuous jewel-tones of winter, deliciously fresh and clean and light. A calming concoction of white, green and citron, with a smattering of fresh kumquats to reference the historic use of the space (as the name suggests, for propagating and growing orange trees).
Grey, too. Which brings me to one of my most beloved flowers - Fritillaria uva vulpis, the fox's grape fritillary, introduced to Britain from Iran, and native to the damp meadows of Western Iran, Eastern Turkey and Northwestern Iraq. A mauve-grey bell, tipped with mustard, which slowly bleaches to the colour of butter within a week to ten days of being cut, seeping down from the mouth until it erases the shadow-spread of pewter grey. The stems throw shapes that are lightly, wildly gestural; I tend to leave them long, to fully display the slim, undulating rhythm that they gamely bring to any arrangement.
The hellebores, which tend to look woebegone unless they are treated, and are notoriously tricky as cut flowers, perked up considerably when the ends were seared for 30 seconds in boiling water, and freshly re-cut below the water-line, though submerging them wholly overnight in lukewarm water the night before didn’t seem to make a jot of difference.
With the revelry well under way, we were invited back for the party in the evening and so after a rather excellent slow-cooked blade of beef beside a log fire in Woodstock we donned velvet and sequins and skittered in high spirits, and very high heels through the ornate golden gate and across the shadowy courtyard for bubbles and martinis and dancing. It was, quite literally, a night on the tiles, and rather nice tiles they were too.
Driving to London from the edge of the Cotswolds yesterday afternoon, in slanting sunlight, the lanes narrowed to avenue-tunnels of white-flowered blackthorn. Not long ago they would have been heavy with sloes. On the verges and garden paths, gathering crocuses, aconites and primroses. Camellia teeming with ghostly-petalled rosettes, glossy evergreen leaves gleaming as if each had been individually buffed with a polishing cloth. When I reached home it was bitterly cold, and I rushed in to make tea and light a fire in the log-burner. Not spring quite yet!
In my walled city garden, which is fast filling with plants, the Japanese maple hosts hundreds of tiny uncoloured buds; the lilac has tiny feathers of new green leaf. On the other side of the house the view through the shutters will soon be lost in a tumult of blossom. In these vacillating temperatures - ice at night, a hint of summer in the afternoon sun - no sooner will the tiny, fragile flowers bloom before they are blown away, scattered around the city, no doubt, by some capricious spring wind.