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Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 07 February 2014 by Tim Ingram

Snowdrops & Hellebores and a little more

Snowdrops and Hellebores and a little more

When the subject of snowdrops is raised there is often mentioned the memory of Tulipomania in the early seventeenth century, although those with more recent memories might recall the 'Flower Power' era of the 1970's. The reality is that snowdrops are simply beautiful and there can be the tendency to want to surround yourself with beautiful things in the short days of winter. And what better way can there be to attract people to visit gardens at these times and share in some of the fascination that has gripped keen gardeners for a century or more?

In the 1960's three of the most respected authorities on snowdrops were Professor O. Schwarz of the University of Jena, Sir Frederick Stern, whose famous chalk garden at Highdown was ideal for growing many such plants, and Gerard Parker, a respected member of the Alpine Garden Society. All three put their contrasting views of the genus in the AGS Bulletin, Vol. 31, pp. 131-141 (1963). Putting aside some of the botanical detail of snowdrops, which can only be arrived at with careful and extensive study, most notably of plants in the wild, for the gardener they are immensely appealing. It is probably no surprise then that one of the finest garden forms we have is named for 'Gerard Parker' - this is a selection of G. plicatus and one of its great virtues as a garden plant is that it reliably sets seed and can result in even more interesting variation. This snowdrop stands out for the size and form of its flowers, and also because the markings are subtly softer green than many of its relatives, and subtlety is a fine feature of snowdrops when one looks closely.

These three pictures show it firstly massed under the apple trees; secondly the results of 'sowing' nearly ripe seedpods in the garden in summer: and thirdly some of the variation and hybridisation that has occurred elsewhere in the garden, some of which are arguably as good as 'Gerard Parker' itself.

Snowdrops and Hellebores and a little more

Some classic selections of G. plicatus are beginning to flower in the garden now, and what must be one of the finest of all garden snowdrops is 'Wendy's Gold'. The yellow ovary and markings are carried down into a distinct yellowish cast of the foliage too, and the plant really lights up the garden. In the absence of crossing with other yellow forms 'Wendy's Gold' produces typical green marked seedlings, so it is probably wise to remove any developing seedpods after flowering. Certainly as good a garden plant is G. plicatus 'Augustus', named for E. A. Bowles by Amy Doncaster (and where would we be without the 'Monograph of Cultivated Galanthus'?). I was given a bulb several years ago by the garden writer Val Bourne and it rapidly increased to make a large 'ball of bulbs' not far off the size of a football, which has been divided and multiplied under a medlar. The flowers are relatively small but beautifully shaped and puckered, and it is a foliage plant of great worth. Snowdrop growers can be very generous and Val also gave me the famous G. 'Trym', where the outer tepals have been converted to the form of the inner ones, really showing the affinity of snowdrops to snowflakes. Like 'Gerard Parker' this is also fertile, readily producing seedlings and hybrids, including the rather nice clump shown below.

Galanthus elwesii, of all snowdrops, can cause those who don't know the variation in foliage of different snowdrops to stare in surprise. This can make remarkable clumps, as these two pictures from Elizabeth Cairn's garden, near to Maidstone show.

Even though forms of snowdrop may not appreciably differ from other selections, it is undeniable that local plants have simple geographical appeal in the garden: two examples of G. elwesii from Kent are 'Gravesend Giant' - really no more giant than many others but it is no surprise that it get this name (this was a kind gift from Eric Jarrett who used to live locally), and 'Roger's Rough', named for Richard Bird's garden, and a more petite but nice plant.

None the less it is really time that tells, and famous relatively older varieties like 'Bertram Anderson' and 'Galatea' show how difficult it can be to resist growing more and more forms of snowdrops!

Variation can overwhelm which is why it is so valuable to have some historical account of plants, and even more so collections of true species in the garden. Hellebores have now been bred in so many colours, forms and unusual hybrids that they have an appeal to the general gardener far more than than the humble snowdrop. For the nurseryman, and that is one of my hats, double forms like this one, are highly attractive. If you grow seedlings in large numbers it can be good to select out certain forms that stand out simply to give you something to aim for amongst all this variation. We have a distinct little group in the garden with 'starry' flowers and have kept these apart from others. The real basis of the modern variety of hellebores though dates from many decades ago when, in particular, Helen Ballard and Elizabeth Strangman, and Eric Smith and Jim Archibald, were carrying out careful controlled crosses between different hybrids and species. The two ladies, especially, aimed for elegant and rounded flowers and strength and purity of colour (viz: the renowned Ballard's Black'). Elizabeth Strangman worked diligently to produce true breeding strains in a range of colours, but occasionally bees beat her to it, and a result is a lovely apricot hellebore 'Pamina', the only named form we have in the garden.

By contrast the true species, Helleborus orientalis, can seem a dowdy plant in the garden really not standing up to the visitors scrutiny - but it would be very sad if gardeners didn't maintain these in cultivation too. This plant, grown from JJA wild collected seed is kept in the front garden, isolated from any other hellebores.

We grow a range of species, and would like to grow more, including a number given to me by David Stephens, a good friend of Jim and Jenny Archibald (and known to all alpine gardeners for his deep interest in crocus). Two of these, only still small plants at the moment, are the green flowered H. viridis and demure H. dumetorum. For the botanically minded gardener these can be more thrilling than many of the hybrids, and the reason why plantsman's gardens may not have quite the drama that much of the gardening world looks for.

... and some others

Just to finish a few other plants. On the sand bed Narcissus cantabricus is flowering well, and the first of the garden daffodils, 'Rijnveldt's Early Sensation', under a magnolia. A favourite sun-loving plant of mine, Lithodora zahnii, has a few of its pale blue 'forget-me-nots' out with many more buds to open. This is now growing very much better with winter cover over the sand bed, than it ever did before, and approaching the lusty plant that grows in the alpine house at Wisley. Another form we grow, 'Azureness', a smaller and neater plant with beautiful deep-blue flowers is more reliable in the open garden but much later flowering. And finally one of the longest flowering of all shrubs, and sweetly scented, Coronilla valentina 'Citrina', which has probably benefited from a protected and very dry spot under a eucalyptus, combining well with cistus, salvias, the Melianthus I showed earlier, and one of those odd plants that you find amongst the specialist society seedlists, Cneorum tricoccon, which like the hellebore species excites the botanically minded but would hardly be noticed by anyone else (so I will show it later on when it actually has a few flowers to catch the eye).

... and some others
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