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Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 24 February 2015 by Tim Ingram

A look at some Kentish snowdrops

Snowdrops are not native British plants but it is hard not to regard them as very much part of England's green and pleasant land - and Scotland and Wales too! The British climate is ideal for them, as for so many plants in different places, and over the years from the fifteenth century, ever since they are likely to have been first introduced, they have steadily naturalised in many woodlands, churchyards and large estates. These two pictures show them in Lorendon woods just down the road from us, and at Leeds church near to Maidstone.

We collect them in the garden for the same reason they have always been grown - they lift winter in the same way that bluebells lift spring - and as they steadily increase in the garden too they cannot help but thrill and fascinate. Despite this it does often take a long time, firstly to appreciate that snowdrops are not all the same, and secondly to actually celebrate this fact. So this February, as we did last, we prepared a display of plants for the local market in the town - along with a few more Kentish enterprises.

Apart from all those people who asked if they could buy the display plants - and clumps like these can take upwards of five or more years to develop - there were viewers who actually did notice that they vary significantly and bought some of the smaller plants that we had for sale. None of them could be classed as Galanthophiles in the way that this term comes across in the specialist plant societies, but the interest in the plants was real and considered.

Several people told us of local naturalised snowdrops in the region, so this entry will look at the general and the specific: natural stands in local woods and the detailed interest they have in the garden, which, as John Richards has commented, might lead you to spend as much or more on a snowdrop as you would on several dionysias or possibly a good book or fine meal.

One place mentioned to us is the Newnham Valley just to the west of Faversham, and this led us on a walk with relatively few snowdrops but some glorious views...

This is a wealthy fruit growing part of Kent and whilst there may have been few snowdrops in Sharsted Woods - we found them eventually running alongside the road - Newnham itself is a wonderfully historic village with beautiful old buildings such as Calico House (the garden is opened for the NGS).

Most enjoyable of all was to meet up with a gardening friend and artist, Gabrielle Turner, who lives where we started the walk at Eastling and has a studio  full of her paintings, including some super sketches of dancers done backstage at the Marlowe Theatre in Canterbury. We have raided her garden in the past for cuttings, and she grows the tenderish Californian sage, Salvia apiana, tucked up tight against the house. This is an intensely aromatic plant with silvery-grey foliage, not hugely showy in flower but named for its attraction to bees.

Generally the snowdrops that gardeners often buy - G. nivalis in the green or G. elwesii and G. woronowii at Garden Centres - are lifted from naturalised stands or wild imported populations where their numbers give the impression that they spread freely and quickly. But this is far from the truth with cultivated varieties, even in the case of familiar and widely available plants such as 'Atkinsii' and 'S. Arnott' (and natural stands of snowdrops also spread relatively slowly and are now far more respected and conserved than even in  relatively recent times). Like other choice bulbs they command a good price because they are relatively scarce and slow to produce. They do not lend themselves to the highly commercial world of bulb production, either in practicality or perception. The conclusion that they all look the same is a reasonable one if the viewer is not especially interested in them - much in the same way that many other plants are [not] viewed - but the corollary that they are hardly worth the prices asked for them ignores the time and skill involved in growing them. In general few gardeners will start a collection of snowdrops by paying ten or twenty pounds for a bulb, but more likely by being given a few varieties by friends. It is hard though from then on, if you have any real interest in plants, not to get a little hooked on them and value them more. For the specialist nurseryman of course it is always nice to grow something which does generate a lot of interest and a reasonable return, in the same way as other professions.

Snowdrops in woodlands have that wild nature which is especially thrilling to see, very different from the way they are grown in gardens, because time is such a factor in their spread and establishment. These pictures show them at Lorendon where they must have been established for a century or more, widely dispersed through woodland once associated with a large house and estate in the village. Here both single and double forms of nivalis grow in chalky soil and are followed along by daffodils and bluebells as well as quite a few other woodland flowers. Now though the snowdrops are the thing, and there are few if any more lovely sights throughout the year.

The single snowdrops look to be at least partially fertile and spreading by seed, even though often established stands of G. nivalis do not appear to set much seed in the same way as many other woodland genera. However, the doubles are almost as well established in places without seed set - the bulbs obviously moved around in various ways and proliferating - and both forms have relatively large and showy flowers compared to forms of nivalis we have in the garden. In one particular spot a deep bowl is completely full of snowdrops, though not flowering so freely as last year, and they are particularly rich deeper into the wood alongside where summer ground vegetation will be more limited by shade from the trees.

Lower down in the wood on sloping ground the underlying chalky soil is more visible and snowdrops cascade beautifully down the bank.

In the garden collecting different cultivars begins to introduce the same feel as they form parts of larger and more complete plantings under deciduous trees and shrubs. Because they flower so early they also have a strong impact on the way the garden is managed. No longer can it be forgotten about until the warming days of spring. Winter becomes a serious gardening season. This is even more true if you take the trouble to open your garden for others to see in February, and it gives the added incentive of paying closer attention to the snowdrops - their comings and goings from year to year and those that really do prosper in the garden and why this may be. Colonies in nature give the clues. Whilst snowdrops are very adaptable, and specific species such as reginae-olgae and peshmanii and elwesii generally prefer warmer and more open situations, many look their best and establish well associated with deciduous trees and shrubs - often tight up against their trunks and branches - and in that woodsy soil which builds up over time. In really old woodlands this is conducive to a greater diversity of understorey species and a relatively stable ecology. A garden inevitably takes effort to maintain the same effect, but heading in that direction and making a 'woodland' planting is one of the most fascinating and delightful ways of gardening, and snowdrops play a big part.

As an aside here is a quote from 'North with the Spring' by Edwin Way Teale describing the Great Smoky Mountains of the Appalachians (I am indebted to Katie Price for introducing me to this book - please see my previous Diary entry referring to her fine talk to our Group):

'And nowhere along the length and breadth of our zig-zag course was spring more dramatically beautiful than in these ancient mountains of the South - home to the richest flora and most luxuriant deciduous forests of the North American continent'

(this small region has over 1300 species of flowering plant - including 130 kinds of trees)

 

Few private gardens are lucky enough to have woodlands associated with them but as gardens mature suitable conditions for snowdrops and woodlanders do become more and more available, even on the smallest scale beneath fruit trees and ornamental trees such as magnolias and acers, and, carefully planted, under the drier canopy of birches and cherries. These are the places we plant them and are slowly developing more extensive sylvan mixes, in part to provide seed and propagating material as much as for display.

The desire to garden like this might come from the natural world but the inspiration really comes from seeing it done in other gardens - for me the woodland plantings at Knightshayes Court, seen on a wet spring day with hardly any other visitors around many years ago, and closer to home, Beth Chatto's garden near to Colchester. Two gardens with very contrasting climates and situations but with equally wonderful mixes of woodland plants making that seamless tapestry which is a feature of all great gardens, large or small. Gardening like this takes time and knowledge: it can't be hurried. It is to do with tuning in to place and plants, and to sharing this with others. Well our garden can hardly compare with these two but hopefully has learnt something from them.

These two pictures show what we are aiming for: natural when viewed from a distance but with that detail of varying snowdrop cultivars and other woodlanders when viewed close-up.

 

But what of the detail? The eye has that subtlety of gaze that picks out the smallest of differences but also always looks for novelty. This works at the level of an individual genus such as Galanthus as much as it does in a broader botanical way. For the purist the natural species of Galanthus will have greatest relevance, as studied closely by Aaron Davis in his Kew Monograph. For the gardener growing the species results in hybridisation and more and more variation from seed and that discriminating eye sets out on a whole new way of classification as described in 'A Monograph of Cultivated Galanthus' written by Matt Bishop, Aaron Davis and John Grimshaw. To look at the burgeoning variety of snowdrops that appear on the SRGC Forum each winter is to see on ongoing lesson in genetics and horticultural fascination a little apart from making a garden.

These are some examples from our garden this winter. Their diversity appeals so much because unlike many alpines that undeniably need considerable care and cosseting - and admiration of their beauty at Shows and under cover - snowdrops are good garden plants and fit into the garden scene, and suit the British climate, in the same way as that even more diverse genus Narcissus.

'Ivy Cottage Green Tips'

(a very nice short form of G. elwesii that like many snowdrops with green outer markings, as often as not lacks these!)

'Bill Bishop'

(a bold and short cultivar in the same tradition as 'Mighty Atom' and 'Imbolc'. Very striking garden plant for its large and short stemmed flowers held only a few inches above the ground)

'South Hayes'

(one of those snowdrops - like the next - which expands the whole concept of the genus and perhaps encapsulates something of Galanthomania. A kind gift from John Finch)

Trym seedling

(so far unnamed derivative of 'Trym' which has occurred amongst a number of other similar progeny in our garden. A snowdrop turning into a 'snowflake')

Galanthus nivalis Sandersii Group

(that small and finicky little variant of nivalis that somehow sets the pulse racing despite being slow and difficult to cultivate and hardly a good garden plant. This certainly grows better with us in a raised high-humus bed as often recommended, hardly increasing at all in the garden itself)

'Mrs Thompson'

(one of the showiest and most striking of all cultivars in our garden - tall, well proportioned, with flowers that open widely in full sun and often have additional petals, as the second picture illustrates)

'Augustus'

(a great classic in the world of snowdrops where foliage makes a feature as much as the flowers, but the flowers themselves in substance and form remain deeply charming with their puckered and globose appearance which has led the famous cultivar 'Diggory' to be even more admired)

A random few out of many snowdrops and there is no doubt that we will be growing more and more in years to come for reasons that are not difficult to understand, and primarily because they make the winter garden extraordinarily beautiful and fascinating in ways that no other plants can.

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