Snow It All – the reluctant galanthophile

I love plants. I love all plants (except, momentarily, the ones which bite me). Call me a whining liberal, but I do not discriminate against any species, genus or family and I find it hard to understand how someone can say that conifers are common, begonias are banal or petunias passé. How can you deny yourself a whole group of innocent little photosynthesisers? All things green or greenish are welcome here, I just wish more of them were happy living with me. My admiration even extends to tenacious weeds and profligate seeders.

It is completely understandable that some people get very excited about certain plants and amass collections of them. Where would our vocabulary of plants be without the enthusiasts, the hoarders, the seed swappers and the National Plant Collection curators? Focus is fine, expertise is admirable, but I have neither. Call me a lightweight (you wouldn’t if you could see me), but if I am a lightweight then I am like a really nimble and unspecific hoverfly, flitting from Abutilon to Zalusyanskya, crying “Ooh, look at this one!”.

Plants, plants, plants, I want them all!

Plants, plants, plants, I want them all!

Everybody loves snowdrops, you can see this in the endearing common names found in so many countries; whether you call it perce-neige or sneeuwklokje, Galanthus nivalis and its little cousins are indeed things of wonder. Heralds, harbingers, whatever spring cliché you like to apply is apt as the little green shoots of recovery appear without fail every year. I have, however, been known to be slightly sneery about snowdrop geeks, or galanthophiles.

When I was a kid I would search for the clumps of snowdrops in our hedge, and often there would be frilly little doubles, like tiny 1970s tennis knickers, which was briefly intriguing, but the main source of joy was the fact that they were here at last. So what’s with the kneeling, the peering through handlenses, the naming of selected varieties, the crazy prices for single bulbs, the theft of clumps from public gardens?

Galanthus 'Lady Beatrix Stanley'. I think there should be a variety called 'Chris Evert'.

Galanthus ‘Lady Beatrix Stanley’. I think there should be a variety called ‘Chris Evert’.

There was a flicker of understanding when we went to Colesbourne Park last February. I had been mostly indoors for a long time and I was hungry for gardens, ripe for conversion. Entering the garden through woodland paths we gasped at the sheets of white under the trees, and found that many patches were labelled. As they should be in a garden with such a historic collection.

Galanthus galore well-labelled at Colesbourne.

Galanthus galore well-labelled at Colesbourne.

I think this is G. 'S.Arnott'

Same scene transformed by a different angle and a ray of sunshine

I started to look more closely and to pick (no, not literally, I wouldn’t dare) my favourites.  I was aware already that there were more species of Galanthus than just nivalis, but I started to be able to spot the differences. Then of course I got confused by the hybrids and dazzled by the freakish little treasures nearer the house. Looking back now, I still can’t tell my ‘Atkinsii’ from my elwesii, but at least my mind has been opened to these and others such as the pleated plicatus, the little green woronowii, and all their progeny.

OF COURSE there should be an ice house among a collection of snowdrops. You can see G. plicatus subsp. byzantinus by this lovely 18th century building.

OF COURSE there should be an ice house among a collection of snowdrops. You can see G. plicatus subsp. byzantinus, collected by HJ Elwes, behind this lovely 18th century building.

I’ve got a fair amount of Galanthus nivalis in my garden, and am encouraging it to spread, especially in the “meadow” area of my lawn. They are seeding slowly – I’m sometimes tempted to transplant more clumps, but I enjoy watching the natural spread develop year after year. I have always enjoyed picking snowdrops, they open wide as soon as you get them in the house and have a warm, honey scent, so it’s good to have plenty of the “ordinary” ones. How amazing to have a garden where there are large swathes of many species and varieties.

Galanthus nivalis marching very slowly across my lawn

Galanthus nivalis marching very slowly across my lawn

A long time ago I was given a few G. elwesii  (or was it ‘Atkinsii’?) Each year I see it again and think perhaps I should dig some up and have it in a pot by the door, as I have to walk right to the bottom of the garden to say hello to it, and no-one else ever sees it. It is large and grey-leafed, a real beauty. Maybe this is the year. Perhaps I should make a serious effort to identify it too, but I refuse to be tyrannised by plant names – surely it’s enough that I like it and I think of the clever and generous gardener who gave it to me every time I see it?

My clump. Do you know your 'Atkinsii' from your elwesii?

My clump. Do you know your ‘Atkinsii’ from your elwesii?

The words “Plant Stall” strike a chill into my husband’s heart. You can only revive him with the words “Tea Room”. Luckily there was one of each. After golloping down the biggest piece of cake I have ever seen I thought it would be rude not to buy a few snowdrops. Sadly they had a credit card machine, so I was obliged to spend about £25. I felt terribly extravagant as I queued to pay, but thought myself positively virtuous when the woman in front of me managed to spend ten times as much.

That'll hold me down in a wind.

That’ll hold me down in a wind.

Bulbous booty back home.

Bulbous booty back home.

Snowdrops are great for early spring plantings - I did these for Whichford Pottery in 2011

Snowdrops are great for early spring plantings – I did these for Whichford Pottery in 2011

Most snowdrops are great container plants because: a) You usually buy them in flower, so you can see what you are getting. Dormant bulbs must not be allowed to dry out, so most people transplant them in the green, but do this carefully if you have precious varieties. b) They are compact but strong enough to poke up through other plants, so you can give them company which will provide interest later in the season. c) They are long-lived, multiply steadily but politely, and tolerate contained life and splitting/transplantation well, given a modicum of shade, and adequate moisture but good drainage. d) They are not generally badly affected by slugs or other pests. e)Having them raised up in containers makes it easier for your inner (or outer) geek to study their little differences.

Lovely stone trough planted at Colesbourne Park

Lovely stone trough planted at Colesbourne Park

Galanthus 'Galatea', the first of my Colesbourne-bought snowdrops to come up in the half-barrel this year.

Galanthus ‘Galatea’, the first of my Colesbourne-bought snowdrops to come up in the half-barrel this year.

 

I’m very good at buying plants and then leaving them languishing for too long while I try to work out how to squeeze them in, but I was determined not to lose my new friends.  Colesbourne had some snowdrops in old stone troughs, which looked absolutely gorgeous, and I would have liked to copy this – but proper troughs are out of my price league. I bought a half barrel, so that my Colesbourne snowdrops could all live together, at least in the short term, accompanied by some shade-lovers which would leaf up later. They are just beginning to flower now and though I lack the application necessary to get to grips with the names I do enjoy observing their different characters. I must get my hand lens out.

Scroll down if you’d like to see a few bonus photos from our visit to Colesbourne:

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Galanthus ‘Hippolyta’

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Galanthus elwesii var. monostictus

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Galanthus plicatus ‘Seraph’

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Galanthus nivalis ‘Fiona’s Gold’

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The more formal garden nearer the house

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A little winter sunshine sparkling on the snowdrops

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To be perfectly honest I didn’t care which variety I was looking at here!

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Not just snowdrops – but also lovely old colonies of Cyclamen coum

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Galanthus ‘I’ve No Idea’

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Hellebores too!

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Galanthus ‘Dunno This One Either’

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Galanthus ‘Dionysus’ was one of my favourites

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Galanthus elwesii ‘Beany’. Well-named.

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This is not a snowdrop. It is Prunus mume ‘Beni-chidori’

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Treasures near the house

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Galanthus ‘Green Tear’

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Galanthus ‘South Hayes’. Possibly the weirdest one.

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Another enviable trough

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The lake, constructed in the 1920s as a source of hydroelectric power. That strange blue colour is apparently from suspended clay particles.

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Snowdrops creeping down to the lake

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Lovely paths to walk on even if you’re not interested in snowdrops…

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22 thoughts on “Snow It All – the reluctant galanthophile

  1. I love snowdrops and am hoping to get to Lacock next week to see theirs.

    Your care and cultivation tips made me smile. My snowdrops (from the same No Idea genus) came from a generous gardener who, when I admired the remains of her drifts – this was much later in the year – kindly dug up a few clumps and put them into a plastic carrier bag. I didn’t go straight home so it took a while to remember the bag in the boot, which then got put in the shed and forgotten. Come the autumn I found the plants, stuck them in the ground and hoped for the best. They are doing just fine…

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  2. I’ve never been one for snowdrops. I think I have been nudged by my Gran a bit because she hated them. Her neighbour had loads and they would creep into her garden under the fence and poke up in the middle of her daffie plots.

    Although I do like how they contrast with other spring bulbs.

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  3. I can claim to be neither …phile nor …phobe. We all have plants that just won’t “do” for us. I’ve tried planting in the green, dry bulbs, in sun, in shade, in woodland, in a pot, in whatever. I count myself lucky if I get a bloom one year after I’ve planted 50 of the blighters. They just don’t like me. But then neither do eryngiums. At least I can be happy that buttercups don’t seem to like me either 🙂

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    • Well, how strange, I always thought that any fool could grow snowdrops. Not that I’m saying… oh well, you know what I mean. Mind you, if it’s any comfort eryngiums don’t like me either. Buttercups I have, and I love them in my long grass, less so when they sneak into my borders. I’ve got spares if you’d like some?

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  4. Great read ! Love snowdrops – but every year I’ve fallen into the trap of seeing some cheap bulbs in the shop – knowing full well they’re going to disappoint – and of course proving myself right. This year I finally decided to get my arse into gear and purchase some in the green! Although it wasn’t easy – none of my local nurseries had any so instead I travelled to Eggleston Hall Gardens in Teesdale who had a fantastic display in there garden and more importantly lots for sale! So I now have a corner of them in the garden – one day I hope a carpet – but single bulbs or in the green it’s still going to be a slow process – one I shall enjoy.

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    • Thank you! Sometimes cheap bulbs can be a genuine bargain, but this is less likely with things like snowdrops and fritillaries, which hate to dry out. Definitely best to buy them from places which grow them, and if you buy special ones in the green you can be sure you’re not being ripped off!Enjoy your developing carpet 🙂

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      • I recently saw a shelf of bulbs in a bargain shop – situated directly underneath the fan heater on the roof – I mentally tutted and shook my head. Yes, it’s lovely to know the origin, it feels almost special to have a piece of somewhere you love in your own back garden. Thank you!

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  5. Felt so virtuous for not going to the Myddleton House sale this year. Felt bad because it’s only a couple of bus rides (and a long walk) away, and it’s a special event local to me. It can get a bit mad there – the first ten minutes or so are an absolute frenzy, and I’ve never seen as many £50 notes rolled out and spent as I have there (NOT by me – I set myself a strict limit, and last year even kept to my wants list) Now I’m not earning, had to be sensible. Had managed to convince myself that a) much better to spend money on edibles like seed potatoes & onion sets, and b) there weren’t any varieties I was REALLY craving.

    All this week I’ve been thinking stuff like – How can I have a snowdrop collection and not own S. Arnott? Or, Diggory is a really special one that doesn’t cost the earth. Then finally this week I realised that I hadn’t seen my pot containing the very elegant variety Fly Fishing – the squirrels must have done for it.

    So I will definitely have to go next year.

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  6. I’ve always loved snowdrops, but my mind was really opened to the amazing variety that’s available after my own visit to Colesbourne a few years ago whilst on an annual “Women’s Weekend” (7 old friends who get together once a year in a rented house). Sadly my companions are of the type who love going for the kind of walk where you steam along at high speed neither looking to left nor right – and certainly not looking down. All I wanted to do was walk a couple of metres, then drop to my knees oohing and aahing. Frustrating for me – I think they just thought I was daft and irritating. I must go again some time, although perhaps the number of snowdrop specialists is growing so there may be somewhere closer to home (Sussex). I’m yet to come to any understanding whether they will grow successfully in our part of SW France.

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    • Oooh I know that problem! Very few of my local friends are keen gardeners. Walking with other people who like taking photos is ok, and my husband has got used to my dawdling, though it’s best if there’s some nice architecture for him to look at too. I have got used to taking a quick photo of a plant, then a quick snap of the label(if there is one) and moving on rapidly, looking back at the photos later when I’m by myself. I must admit to enjoying gardens best when I’m by myself or with a gardener who works there – I’m not a very sociable garden visitor.
      Surely it’s worth trying the snowdrops in France? As many have their origins in Southern Europe I reckon you should give them a go, though a specialist might be able to suggest the best species/cultivars for your neck of the woods.

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    • Thanks Roger. Yes I’ve been doing some bold dividing (G.’Marjorie Brown’ this time) at work just today in fact, but I enjoy watching my little patches of ordinary G.nivalis spread naturally at home.

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