Confessions of a snowdrop addict

by Sue Clayton

‘The secret of being happy is being obsessed by something’– David Bellamy

This article was written some years ago but it is still just as relevant today and well worth reading again. Snowdrops seem as popular as ever and this article gives some insight into one person’s obsession with the little white flowers known as Galanthus.

What non-amorous obsession could possibly lead a gardener to contemplate spending a couple of nights in February at a motel on Junction 5 of the M54? What led the startled owner of an isolated rectory to find a well-known East Anglian nursery owner prostrate on the frozen February ground and one hundred total strangers rampaging through his garden? The clue, of course, lies in the month – February – when the small but growing population of galanthophiles gallivants around the country in an obsessive search for the object of their desires, the snowdrop. The M54 motel hosted the ten-yearly Galanthus Study Weekend in Shropshire. The nursery owner was Wol Staines of Glen Chantry, angling for the best shot of the balloon-like Galanthus ‘Diggory’ during the Norfolk Galanthus Gala. My personal obsession took root quietly about fifteen years ago. As a hater of winter, I suppose it was inevitable that I would look for winter flowers to help me endure the depressing grey days. Snowdrops had long been favourites but then I began to notice that my favourite bulb nursery, Broadleigh Gardens, listed several named cultivars and that there were some differences in flowering times. By chance, probably because it was among the cheapest, I started with G. ‘Atkinsii’, discovered by James Allen and named after James Atkins, a Gloucestershire gardener who distributed it from his garden in Painswick. My choice was fortunate because I later learnt that it had several useful characteristics. It is a tall, slender, vigorous hybrid which increases reliably, apparently vegetatively rather than seed. Most importantly, it flowers about a month before G. nivalis.

In such a short article I can only touch on a few of the many species and cultivars so I will concentrate on more of the early flowering forms. It is now December and there have been no frosts in my garden in East Kent since mid-October. This is unprecedented and increasing numbers of snowdrop ‘noses’ have been showing since late October. Unfortunately, slugs and snails are also delighting in global warming and, reluctantly, I have had to resort to using Sluggit to protect the emerging tips. Sadly, I was too late to save the buds of my newly acquired and hugely anticipated G. ‘Remember, Remember’ (syn. ‘November Merlin’) which had been on course to flower by 5th November as promised. It is described as having a deep green shaded inner segment, reminiscent of G. ‘Merlin’. At the November 2000 meeting of the HPS Kent Group I first saw a beautiful pot of G. elwesii ‘Peter Gatehouse’ in flower, exhibited by David Andrews. Galanthophiles are prone to many sins and I immediately coveted it. It did not appear in any of the literature so I was really excited to find Graham Gough selling it a few months later. A small group came into flower in the garden on 13th November this year. It has a good green, scissor-shaped inner mark, with the colour fading towards the ovary and greyish leaves. Graham only knows that it was named for a Peter Gatehouse of Tenterden. It is nice to have a ‘Kentish’ snowdrop and I wonder if any members can add any further details about Mr Gatehouse.

Another early beauty is G. ‘Three Ships’, so named by John Morley because it never fails to ‘come sailing in on Christmas Day’. In this extraordinarily mild year it is a month early.  ‘Merlin’ is a legendary snowdrop with entirely green inner segments. A James Allen seedling, it is strong growing, multiplying very well and flowering in mid-January. G. ‘Tubby Merlin’, raised by E.B. Anderson, is a charming smaller version, honey scented and slightly later. Of the doubles, G. ‘Lady Beatrix Stanley’ just beats G. ‘Lavinia’ into bloom in mid-January but many growers find the latter shy flowering and have destroyed their stocks. These are just the curtain raisers for the main snowdrop season but with witch hazel and wintersweet, they play an essential part in my winter survival kit.

All images courtesy of Mark Smyth.