I have a mild and intermittent case of galanthophilia which generally occurs at the end of season Avon Bulbs’ snowdrop sale.
Snowdrops (Galanthus), are amongst the first uplifting floral signs of the new gardening year. I’m lucky enough to have a small copse at the end of my Wiltshire garden which becomes a wash of snowdrops in late January/early February, courtesy of previous gardening owners.
A welcome colonist
Galanthus nivalis is native to much of Europe. The common name, Snowdrop, probably derives from the German, Schneetropfen. In French it is known as Perce-neige or snow piercer for the way the bud clasped by the leaves pushes itself up to flower. The majority of galanthus species, including early flowering G elwesii, are mainly from Turkey and the Caucasus.
Although widely distributed in the wild in the UK, snowdrops are not native plants. Wild colonies often mark gardens long-gone, and can be found in many churchyards. One of the delights on an otherwise gloomy February day is seeing drifts tucked into the lee of hedges, lighting-up winter-drab roadsides.
Written references to snowdrops in the UK date back to the 16th century, although it has been suggested that the Romans may have introduced G nivalis. More recently, snowdrops were associated with soldiers returning from the Crimean War with Galanthus plicatus bulbs, popularising them as garden plants in the 1850s.
An amazing choice awaits
If galanthophilia strikes, you could end up spending hundreds of pounds on a single bulb. Sometimes the differences are down to the green markings on the inner petals. To investigate further, you may need to get down on hands and knees in the mud with a magnifying glass to differentiate ‘Deer Slot’ (around £30 a bulb) from ‘Grumpy’ (£40).
Then there are the downright ugly but distinctive snowdrops like ‘Mr Stinker’ (the finder’s terrier), and ‘Blewbury Tart’ named after the Oxfordshire village it was discovered in.
Many snowdrops bear people’s names. With 6 instead of 3 inner and outer petals, ‘Godfrey Owen’ was the husband of renowned Shropshire plantswoman Margaret Owen. Single yellow-marked ‘Primrose Warburg’ commemorates a redoubtable Oxfordshire plantswoman famed for her snowdrop lunches, (‘Deer Slot’ was one of her discoveries).
I stick with the easy, elegant and reliable, not all snowdrop cultivars are willing or easy!
‘Sam Arnott’ is a venerable old cultivar, re-discovered by the Giant Snowdrop Company in the 1950’s, when galanthophilia first began to infect gardeners up and down the country.
‘Brenda Troyle’ is a tall-growing, robust, well-scented earlier flowering girl – in full flower with the outer petals outspread on a sunny day she puts on quite a show, and increases well.
Double-flowered ‘Lady Elphinstone’ is an old-timer from the 1890s, with, if you are lucky, golden trimmings to her skirts – sometimes she decides to have a green only year.
Another easy one is ‘Magnet’, where the bit that connects the stem to the flower, (pedicel), is longer than normal – the flowers appear all the more delicate, dancing on the end.
How and where to grow
Most snowdrops are generally not fussy about soil type, but moister, shadier conditions tend to be favoured, (think about where you see them ‘in the wild’). They can be displayed in pots, but generally prefer to be in the ground. Chelsea Physic Garden displays them prettily by hanging them as Kokodama, and using them as potted specimens in a plant ‘theatre’.
Snowdrops increase by creating offsets, (smaller bulbs which grow out from the main bulb), and many but not all produce seed.
The general consensus is to buy them in-the-green, which is just after flowering, when most nurseries offer them. I have planted dry bulbs, but as I remember it, they take longer to establish.
And, as the foliage dies down after flowering until early winter, snowdrops give you space for a succession of later flowering plants.
Places to visit
Colesbourne Park – Gloucestershire
Welford Park – Berkshire
Hodsock Priory – Nottinghamshire
Anglesey Abbey – Cambridgeshire (National Trust)
National Garden Scheme – find a snowdrop garden near you