BRITISH weather forecasters were predicting snow for the January morning I arrived in Jersey. That wasn't what I had in mind. I wanted to vanquish the winter blues with flowers, which is not as absurd as it might sound; spring comes early to the 45-square-mile island in the English Channel. While the rest of Northern Europe languishes in winter's clutches, daffodils pop up in cemeteries and bright primroses decorate the front yards of vacation cottages, unseen and thus unappreciated by the sun-seekers of summer.
Jersey is the largest of the Channel Islands, about 15 miles from France and 100 miles south of mainland England. Its climate is mild, tempered by the Gulf Stream. From May to September the average temperature is 68 degrees. In winter Jersey is often windy but rarely frigid, and snow rarely sticks. As a result, the island is a hothouse where flowers are so perpetual that Rebecca Ransom, co-director of one of Jersey's major garden centers, calls them "white noise."
I knew I'd find flowers, though, because my main reason for making the trip was to visit the Eric Young Orchid Foundation, one of Jersey's — and, arguably one of the world's — greatest floral treasures. The foundation isn't as famous as other island attractions, such as the gentle Jersey cow and her sinfully rich dairy products, or Royal Jersey potatoes and Royal Bay of Grouville oysters. But orchid aficionados know the foundation because it wins awards at almost every competition it enters, including four gold medals from the Royal Horticultural Society at a recent Chelsea Flower Show.
It's about a 45-minute drive from the Jersey airport to the Moorings Hotel in Gorey, on the east side of the island. To get there, I followed the south coast and passed through St. Helier, the island's capital. I had only a map from the rental car agency to direct me, because I hadn't been able to find a guidebook on Britain that included Jersey.
There's a reason for that. Technically, Jersey isn't part of Britain — or the European Union, for that matter. Traded back and forth between England and France throughout its history, Jersey chose to ally itself with Britain in the 13th century and, as a reward, was granted the unique status of "crown peculiar," which means it remains self-governing. It is subject only to the English monarch, not to the Parliament, though England handles Jersey's affairs by treaty.
The island has its own currency (which looks much like and is used interchangeably with British notes and coins, also accepted on Jersey), is blessed with some of the cleanest beaches in Europe (thanks to high-tech sewage treatment) and writes its own tax laws.
Income tax is low — 20%, compared with rates twice that in other parts of Europe — for its 90,000 residents, and there are no inheritance, capital gains or value-added taxes.
The island's chief enterprise is finance, and its benign tax environment has attracted people with pots of money. You wouldn't know about its finances from the undistinguished, middle-class vacation homes that line the south coast. Rich tax-haven seekers have tended to settle in the secluded, undeveloped farm country on the north side of the island, where gates hint at the grandeur of the houses beyond.
Tours of the island
It was dark when I arrived, and the island's winding roads are hard to navigate in any light, often petering out into "green lanes," a system of scenic routes for walkers and cyclists. I eventually found my way to Gorey Harbor, underneath Mt. Orgueil Castle, a cliff-top landmark since the 13th century.
The Moorings is a small, modest hotel owned by affable Renzo Martin, the island's Italian consul. It has fine views of wide Grouville Bay, fringed lampshades and a dining room decorated in the endearingly stuffy style of "Fawlty Towers." Here I got my first taste of Jersey's marvelous seafood: crab cakes followed by grilled European flounder, accompanied by a Muscadet.
I love summer places out of season, and I settled in at the Moorings like a bird that had forgotten to fly south for the winter. All through the night, rain quarreled with a nettlesome wind. The next morning I awoke to fitful sunshine.
There was time before my afternoon appointment with Chris Purver, curator of the Eric Young Orchid Foundation, to drive south along the coast to La Rocque, a curving spit of land that looked as though you could skip a rock across the channel to Normandy. From there I saw a stout, round Martello tower, stranded at sea as a result of high tides. It dates to about 1800 and was part of a coastal defense system the English built to deter Napoleon.
The Gallic part of Jersey's nature is most apparent on the island's eastern side facing France. Inland from La Rocque, I found the old stone Church of St. Clement, where, as I'd hoped, the daffodils were out and the 15th century murals of warrior-like St. Michael are thought to have been the inspiration of a French prioress from the saint's great Gothic shrine in Normandy, Mont-St.-Michel.
I spoke French with a woman at a grocery store in Gorey village, about a mile south of the harbor. Indeed, French was the island's official language until as late as 1960, though English is pervasive now.
After a cup of tea at the cafe at Jersey Pottery, a ceramics factory and shop also in Gorey village, I took a walk on the ridge above town. Along the way, I saw pale purple foxgloves and got caught in a hailstorm, which drove me back to the car and ultimately to the perfect weather inside a glass house at the orchid foundation.
The private orchid collection and breeding center was established in 1986 by Eric Young, an English eccentric who had three Rolls-Royces but bristled at the high cost of compost. Young came to Jersey after World War II and became a successful businessman, which enabled him to collect snuff jars and indulge his passion for orchids.
People think of orchids as the touchy, exotic flowers displayed in elegant settings. But they grow almost everywhere and in astounding variety. There are about 30,000 species in the plant family, and hybrid orchids — crosses between species and hybrids or two hybrids — number in the hundreds of thousands, with about 2,000 new ones registered with England's Royal Horticultural Society every year.
Creating new hybrids can take a decade from pollination to new bloom and increasingly relies on genetic engineering to yield crosses with bigger, deeper-colored blooms. Thus, orchidologists like those at the Eric Young Foundation have something in common with Dr. Frankenstein, except that the result of their efforts isn't a monster but a flower.
A growing passion
The first hybrid orchid was created in 1856, launching a period of orchid mania in England. Horticulturalists began journeying to the far corners of the globe in search of as yet unknown species, sold to wealthy collectors at inflated prices. When such orchid aficionados died, their collections were usually dispersed, curtailing further hybridization from their collections.
Eric Young, who died in 1984, had the foresight to buy the contents of Sander's St. Albans Nursery, one of the world's best-known orchid collections, from which he carried on the work of orchid perfection.
The foundation is open to the public, but curator Purver had agreed to take me on a special tour before he flew off to London, where he was taking a hanging Stanhopea platyceras orchid in full bloom, for judging by the Royal Horticultural Society.
We met in the foyer of the display house, small compared with the adjacent production houses, where newly bred orchids emerge and eventually flower.
For foundation orchidologists, waiting for that to happen can be like biding your time for years to open your Christmas presents. Sometimes, the first blooming of a new hybrid is cause for jubilation, as when a plant discovered in Peru in the 1980s enabled the foundation to jump-start breeding of long neglected genus Phragmipedium, or Mandarin orchids.
Among the first hybrids bred from it was foundation star, Phragmipedium Eric Young, a copper-colored slip of a blossom as gossamer as the fairies in "A Midsummer Night's Dream."
At other times, hybridizations disappoint, producing progeny no more distinguished than their parents. Perfecting an orchid's color, size and durability takes patience, above all. "But if we can create something beautiful that lasts only a day, that's acceptable to us," Purver says.
Fortunately, Purver has the means to experiment, unfettered by the need to produce orchids for the commercial market. That's thanks to Young's financial planning, which allowed the foundation to pursue its esoteric work, free of market influences.
"We have no commercial constraints," Purver says. "There's no place like this in the world."
The show house is lush, with winding paths and fountains, an artist's palette of color all year long, fed by the production houses. The colors of the orchids massed there struck me first, from the deep red of showy cymbidium orchids, known to most of us from Mother's Day corsages, to the delicately variegated yellow and white of branched Odontoglossum, found in the cloud forests of the South American Andes Mountains.
As we toured the display, Purver pointed out some of the orchid's distinguishing features, including, in some cases, its ability to grow in different habitats, and the modification of the flower to form lips, pouches and spurs. These often play a part in the strange sex lives of orchids, abetting reproduction by attracting and temporarily trapping the insects that collect a flower's pollen. After observing a Comet orchid with a particularly long, tubular spur, an English naturalist correctly predicted that there had to be an insect with a proboscis extenuated enough to enter it.
Adjacent to the show house is a viewing gallery overlooking the production houses. Because I was with the director, I got to go inside one of these long, glass-roofed structures filled with orchids at various stages of development. There, Purver showed me several extraordinary hybrids, such as subtle, sylph-like Phragmipedium Jason Fischer, and explained the criteria that judges use when giving awards. Chief among them are size and color, but something far less quantifiable is involved as well. Purver calls it character, the quality that makes a flower stand out.
The longer I looked at Jason Fischer, the more I understood what Purver meant and the more grateful I felt that there is a place in this jaded world where people still strive for perfection.
A sweet ending
The sun had come back out by the time I left the foundation, so I drove north on winding country lanes to a trailhead for the north coast path at Bouley Bay. From there, I walked about a mile east along cliffs tops carpeted in blooming yellow gorse.
Later, on the way back to Gorey, I stopped at Ransoms Garden Center. Besides selling potted plants and gardening supplies, it has a restaurant and tea room, where I had hot toffee cake with Jersey ice cream, sticky, rich and thrilling.
I'd like to have stayed longer, but early the next morning it was time to leave the hothouse island in the English Channel and face the doldrums of winter. But I felt up to it now, thanks to the flowers. Common daffodils and rare orchids alike, they are bringers of joy.
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Where to smell the flowers
April 2-10: Spring Garden Festival. Guided environmental walks, open gardens and the spring show at the Royal Jersey Horticultural Society.
June 18-19: Early Summer Rose & Flower Festival. The Jersey Rosarians and Royal Jersey Horticultural Society mount their annual rose display at Samarès Manor.
July 17-24: Jersey in Bloom. Peak season floral displays, open gardens and walks with British garden experts.
Aug. 11-12: Battle of Flowers. Jersey's blowout flower carnival and parade, with floats and entertainment.
Aug. 20-21: Summer Flower Show. Displays focusing on old roses, by the Royal Jersey Horticultural Society.
Oct. 7-9: Autumn Fruit, Flower and Vegetable Show. Jersey at harvest time.
Perpetual petal power
From LAX, Air New Zealand, United, British, American and Virgin Atlantic fly nonstop to London's Heathrow Airport. American, Northwest, Continental and Delta have connecting flights (change of plane) to London's Gatwick Airport. For both airports, restricted round-trip fares begin at $428.
From Gatwick, British and Jersey European Airways fly to Jersey. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $55.
To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 44 (country code for Britain) and the local number.
WHERE TO STAY:
The Moorings Hotel and Restaurant, Gorey Pier; 1534-853-633, http://www.themooringshotel.com . This is a small, efficiently run hotel on the harbor in Gorey. Doubles begin at $195, with breakfast.
Longueville Manor, Longueville Road, St. Saviour; 1534-725-501, http://www.longuevillemanor.com . A luxurious hotel on the outskirts of St. Helier, part of the Relais & Châteaux group. Doubles begin at $402, with breakfast.
WHERE TO EAT:
Both hotels above have excellent restaurants, featuring local seafood. For lunch or tea, also try:
The Gardener's Restaurant and Tea Room at Ransoms Garden Center, 1534-853-668, on Route B30, a mile northwest of Gorey. Set-price lunch is $24; dinner is about $29. A la carte items begin at $13.
The Garden Restaurant at Jersey Pottery, 1534-851-119, http://www.jerseypottery.com , in Gorey, which fully opens for the season on March 22. Entrees $18-$62.