A passion for snowdrops

By Andy McIndoe

I love snowdrops, but I am no galanthophile and must admit I have never studied them in detail.

Like many gardeners I can recognise the single flowered ones and differentiate from the doubles. Given a choice I would go for the former and would plant ordinary Galanthus nivalis out of preference. I never really understood how enthusiasts could get so excited by the apparent differences between snowdrop blooms that, at first glance looked just the same.

Elegant snowdrops

That was until I visited some gardens in Dorset and Somerset (in the South-West of England) during February, the month of snowdrops. The hilltop town of Shaftesbury, Dorset has established a reputation for its snowdrops and Shaftesbury Snowdrops has become a Mecca for galanthophiles from all over Europe. The annual Snowdrop Festival’s highlight is the snowdrop study day on the first Saturday in February.

Shaftesbury Churchyard

The snowdrop sale in the town hall brings together specialist nurseries and growers together with snowdrop enthusiasts, collectors and fanciers. A visit is enough to convert anyone with an appreciation of these diminutive charmers. I found myself marvelling at the green tips of petals, golden ovaries and curiously different structures of apparently similar flowers. With prices ranging from a couple of pounds to several hundred pounds for a single bulb it is easy to get swept away. A single snowdrop growing in a small pot with a handwritten label costing just a few pounds is a bargain hard to resist.

Shaftesbury Snowdrop Sale

Throughout the town and surrounding lanes snowdrops abound. Even if you are not convinced by the allure of the individual flower you cannot help being captivated by the drifts of white that light up the churchyard. More are planted regularly, and of course they multiply so the display becomes more impressive each year. Perhaps some originate when from the days when the interest in snowdrops and collecting them first started.

Galanthus 'Wendy's Gold'

The passion for snowdrops started in England; it really began during the Crimean War of the mid 1850s. This conflict spread across parts of Europe and Asia where the 20 species of snowdrops are native. Soldiers collected them and brought them back to plant at home in cottage gardens and often churchyards. We are by nature collectors and it would not take long for the subtle variations that arose in gardens to be recognised and cherished. Collections were established by plant enthusiasts and named individual varieties began to command high prices.

The garden at East Lambrook Manor in Somerset were created by the renowned plantswoman and garden writer Margery Fish during the 1940s, 50s and 60s.

East Lambrook Manor

Acclaimed as the birthplace of cottage gardening this garden was established as one that could be maintained without a team of gardeners and one where every plant was chosen, loved and cultivated with care. It contains extensive collections of many cottage garden plants and is especially well known for its snowdrops. During February, when the garden reopens after winter snowdrops abound, both in the wonderfully naturalistic setting of the garden and also in beautifully presented displays in the small plant centre. Anyone on the West Country snowdrop trail must include East Lambrook Manor on their itinerary.

East Lambrook Manor Snowdrop display

Snowdrops associate well with other early bulbs including specie crocus and winter aconites, Eranthis hyemalis. They are often planted amongst shrubs grown for their winter stems and hellebores. Both provide summer shade, which the bulbs appreciate and the latter are often a secondary passion for the galanthophile.Hellebores too exhibit subtle variations and are very collectable.

Winter aconites

Snowdrops grow best in soil that is reasonably moist and rich in organic matter. Few species are happy in hot, dry situations. They naturalise well in grass, especially in semi-shade and are often found in the rough turf alongside streams and ditches.

Naturalised Galanthus nivalis

Early in the New Year snowdrops enthusiasts are on the lookout for those tiny grey-green shoots emerging through the soil. Almost regardless of the weather they appear, the buds like tiny penguins sheltered by the leaves. Having planted my few purchases from the snowdrop sale in a dedicated, if unhospitable part of the garden I now understand the appeal. During the growing year what happens on the surface is irrelevant, it is the bulbs beneath the soil that are important. They must be protected at all cost ready for that much anticipated display at the beginning of another gardening year.

Andy McIndoe

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