I love plants. I love all plants (except 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!”.
Everybody loves snowdrops, you can see this in the endearing common names found in so many countries. Whether you know it as perce-neige or sneeuwklokje, Galanthus nivalis and its little cousins are indeed things of wonder. Heralds, harbingers, whichever 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?
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.
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.
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. Picked snowdrops 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 it must be to have a garden where there are large swathes of many species and varieties.
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?
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 at Colesbourne. 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 there was nothing to stop me – I felt terribly extravagant as I queued to pay (about £25), but thought myself positively virtuous when the woman in front of me managed to spend ten times as much.
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.
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: