A trio of us from Kent decided to attend the Shaftesbury Snowdrop Festival this year. The Festival lasts a week and first started in 2012 when ‘Shaftesbury Snowdrops’ decided to make it Britain’s first Snowdrop Town. The idea is to create snowdrop walks by planting hundreds of thousands of snowdrops in open spaces and along the paths through the town. So far 180,000 have been planted with more being added every year. In 2014 the Heritage Collection was started with a view to eventually holding a Royal Horticultural Society recognised National Collection of snowdrops. Events are held over the week of the Festival ranging from snowdrop lantern making, to a Study Day, which we were attending.

We arrived late afternoon on Friday, having detoured via Lacock Abbey where we had a pleasant walk through the grounds, with drifts of Galanthus nivalis and Eranthus hyemalis. The first event of the Study Day was a reception at the Arts Centre on the Friday evening where we had a glass of wine and some excellent canapés, while looking at various artistic interpretations of snowdrops. These included textile art, jewellery, photographs and paintings.

Lacock Abbey

Gold Hill, Shaftesbury (as in Hovis advert)

The actual Study Day was on Saturday and we had two excellent talks in the morning, firstly from Tom Mitchell of Revolution Snowdrops, ‘Extreme Snowdropping’ – a search for species in the wild, and secondly from Alan Street of Avon Bulbs, ‘Every Last Drop’- Alan’s take on the recent snowdrop mania.

Tom travels extensively from mid-October to the end of April, in search of Galanthus species in the wild.

So far this snowdrop season, he has taken approximately 273 flights, and the same number of accompanying plane ‘bottles’ of wine, several cars and boats travelling in eleven countries. He definitely is intrepid in his pursuit of species snowdrops, visiting dodgy political areas and arousing suspicion when found crawling around in remote areas wielding a camera with a long lens. This year alone he has been detained twice by the local police. Their reaction has been, initially of incredulity, followed by enthusiasm and interest. Tom described the locations of the different species and the possible overlapping and crossing of species based on DNA weighting. I will only mention a couple of species.

One such species is Galanthus transcaucasicus, which grows from 28 meters below sea level at the Caspian Sea up to 2200 meters in the Golestan National Park peaks, in Iran. The Circassian Forest, a Biological Refuge left over from the last glacial period, is a biologically rich area with Parrotia persica, Danae racemosa, Cyclamen elegans and many Galanthus transcauscasicus to mention just a few plants.

He definitely is intrepid in his pursuit of species snowdrops, visiting dodgy political areas and arousing suspicion when found crawling around wielding a camera with a long lens!

Tom is nothing if not persistent in his determination to see different species in flower. One example is Galanthus trojanus, the second most recently found species. (Galanthus panjutinii is the most recently discovered) He has so far been to find G. trojanus, in North West Turkey, four times. The first time it was under snow, the second he saw just one flower, the third they had finished flowering and the fourth, just last week, they were not quite in flower – so Tom is going again this week for the fifth time.

After Tom’s interesting and entertaining talk, in which he admitted he might be considered rather unconventional in his fixation with Galanthus species, Alan Street of Avon Bulbs took the stage. Alan’s talk started with tulips with reference to tulipomania. This only actually lasted for three years between 1634 and 1637 but in 1633/4 one bulb of Tulipa ‘Semper Augustus’ sold for the equivalent of six times the average wage. Today nine thousand million tulip bulbs are grown annually in Holland. Hyacinths were once also highly prized and one person grew a hyacinth bulb in a bird cage to protect it.

Peter Barr, a Scottish seed merchant based in Covent Garden, popularized daffodils and produced the Barr and Sugden seed catalogue with his partner. They printed 30,000 copies in 1872 and later were the first to have a telephone number printed on their catalogues.

On to snowdrops! We were taken through a history of galanthophiles particularly those who have snowdrops named after them, such as E. A. Bowles (G. ‘Augustus’, G. ‘E. A. Bowles’ to name but two) Marjory Fish, Walter Fish, Primrose Warburg and Lady Beatrix Stanley.

Alan said that there were unnecessarily named snowdrops which, considering the number of different cultivars, is probably true. The test of time will tell which ones are worthy!

Some practical advice and more points of interest on growing Galanthus followed:

  • Snowdrops and other monocots hate getting their roots frozen so one of the worst things to do is grow them in pots placed on concrete. It is a sure way to kill them.
  • The yellow cultivars are best grown where they get sun.
  • Orange snowdrops are coming! Breeders are trying to increase the colour intensity.
  • The new snowdrop on the block is Galanthus ‘Lime Trym’ but you will have to wait for it because there is only one in the world at the moment!

Galanthus ‘Margery Fish’

Now for The VIP Snowdrop Sale, which was open initially for event attendees. A hoard of us decided that that took precedence over lunch! It was held in the Guild Hall which was a short walk, or trot, away. When we dashed over it was trying to snow but we were welcomed by the scent when went into the warm hall. It was remarkable. It is only occasionally that you really smell snowdrops but what a wonderful and memorable experience!

We were very restrained and walked around looking and spotting what each nursery had for sale and the comparative prices. We all had our wish lists and mainly stuck to them – at least initially!

Lunch was back at the Arts Centre and there were three excellent varieties of soup, fruit and a range of cakes.

Entry to the Abbey Museum Gardens was also included and we went to look at the Heritage Snowdrop Collection which are grown in pots. It was rather chilly so after a quick look we retreated to the warmth of the museum.

The final event of the day was either a visit to a snowdrop garden or ‘Thenford – The Creation of an English Garden’ a talk given by The Right Honourable Lord Heseltine CH PC & Lady Heseltine telling the story of one family and one garden over 40 years. Since we were visiting their garden the following Friday it seemed an obvious choice. Unfortunately, the Heseltines had been delayed and so there was a Q & A session with Tom Mitchell, Joe Sharman, Alan Street and Melvyn Jupp to fill the delay. Some very useful tips were picked up including:

  • Oil beetles, which I had never heard of, eat snowdrop leaves.
  • Slug pellets do not work for all slugs and if too many are used will actually be counterproductive. Joe Sharman aka ‘Mr Snowdrop’ suggested trying coffee grounds instead.
  • The one bit of information that everyone seems to want to know is when is the best time to split Galanthus. Joe Sharman suggests either when just coming into growth at the beginning of January, when they should have little check, or at the end of March/beginning of April when the leaves are dying back.

Thenford will have to wait for another post. We had a lovely trip to Dorset and came back with a selection of different Galanthus cultivars. There will be more to be tempted by at Great Comp Snowdrop Day!