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Kent Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 13 February 2017 by Tim Ingram

Getting the measure of snowdrops...

"Winter dressing is all about having chic outerwear." (George Kotsiopoulos)

The way snowdrops have captured the imagination of gardeners in recent years must mirror the popularity they developed a century ago when plantsmen such as James Allen and E.A. Bowles were enthusiastically collecting them. Now it could be said that Galanthophilia sometimes verges on obsession, but that is hardly restricted to snowdrops alone! So this is my personal attempt to view them in a wider context based on a talk of our and others' experience of growing them in Kent, and the undeniable truth that a fascination with snowdrops acts to fine-tune the gardening eye (really no differently to a fascination with alpine plants in general). They have an impact on the way a garden is managed and develops fully proportionate to their beauty and charm.

I wrote this article entitled 'Getting the Measure of Snowdrops' for the Journal of the Hardy Plant Society a year ago. Gardening is an ongoing process of discovery and the proliferation of snowdrop cultivars now can leave one lost to their wider role in the garden: for us it is to do with preparing the garden for the spring to come, but also with inviting people into the garden in February to really appreciate their variety and to raise funds for charity through the National Gardens Scheme. At the same time we gradually learn more about their diversity and make more sense of the world of Galanthophilia in the twenty-first century. It is also a way in which we make local connections with gardeners and the culture of where we live, and it was delightful to be profiled by http://favershamlife.org/snowdrops-copton-ash/.

The real incentive to grow snowdrops comes from seeing them naturalised in woodlands and we are lucky to have a thriving example very near to us at Lorenden in Painter's Forstal.

Here there are both single and double-flowered Galanthus nivalis originally planted in the early nineteenth century and now making spectacular drifts through woodland that has steadily matured over the same timescale from more open parkland, overlying chalky soil.

Although there are signs of a few seedlings amongst the single snowdrops the increase is more notably by vegetative multiplication of the bulbs, and for gardeners this has great significance. Snowdrops multiply and spread relatively slowly and set a rhythm on the garden much closer to the natural ecology of plants than to the 'instant' gardening of the media. As an example, this clump of an early flowering form of G. elwesii in our garden came from Avon Bulbs in 2001 and has been undisturbed ever since. Sixteen years later this is the result. 

Relatively few of the snowdrops in our garden (either species or cultivars) set seed, though those that do do increase more markedly, and growing a wider variety close together does steadily result in hybridisation and greater seed set. In fact naturalised G. nivalis behaves very like the Ancient woodland species Anemone nemorosa in shedding seed before it is fully developed (see: https://academic.oup.com/aob/article/111/5/945/194048/Seed-development-and-maturation-in-early-spring), and although not native to the UK flora has very much the same ecological niche, another reason why snowdrops bring such natural charm into the garden. These are examples of Anemone nemorosa in The Blean Woods, near to Canterbury.

It is not such a leap from gardening with snowdrops (and woodland perennials in general) to gaining that much deeper ecological appreciation and understanding of woodlands that Oliver Rackham has written about so precisely in his various books, and hence to the rich temperate woodlands across the northern hemisphere which are the sources of so many of our garden plants. This is the great excitement of the garden to come in spring.

From this, then, follows naturally the 'Snowdrop Day' and that connection with people as much as with plants, and where I would like to take the reader on...

 

(to be continued)

This picture, taken in Elizabeth Cairns' garden at Knowle Hill Farm (http://www.knowlehillfarmgarden.co.uk/index.php), shows snowdrops, crocus and cyclamen naturalising in a small copse of trees very similar to my pictures of Lorendon. Here later the area is fenced off for hens to roam freely when the bulbs have died down. Many of Elizabeth's snowdrops came originally from her friend, Martyn Rix, and I have described her garden in earlier Diary entries at different times of the year and will show more in the future. 

One particularly strong Kentish connection with the plantsman's interest in snowdrops has come from Washfield Nursery and Elizabeth Strangman and Graham Gough (from where so many exciting and novel garden plants were distributed over many years). So this picture of a fine clump of G. 'Washfield Colesbourne' at Knowle Hill Farm introduces a wider perspective on Kentish snowdrop gardens. Just in the way that snowdrops in a garden presage the spring that follows their flowering, the private snowdrop gardens in different parts of the country have a marked influence on the 'gardening scene' in those places - and these gardens vary greatly but hold one thing in common, a great fascination with plants and a desire to share this with others.

Although Washfield is now closed, its legacy - especially Elizabeth's ground-breaking work on developing strains of hellebores - lives on in innumerable gardens, and in Graham Gough's nursery and garden at Marchants in Sussex (https://www.marchantshardyplants.co.uk). Many of the snowdrops distributed from Washfield actually derived from Graham's collection in a chalky garden on the south coast, and that tradition carries on at Marchants (again as I have described in an earlier Diary entry).

This is just one example, which I have pictured before, of a fine clump of G. gracilis, showing those twisted leaves and yellowish ovaries that often mark it and its hybrids out in the garden.

This in turn leads on to the 'Snowdrop and Hellebore Extravaganza' (the name coined by Graham) which the Kent Group of the Hardy Plant Society ran very successfully for over a decade at Goodnestone Park Garden, near to Canterbury in Kent. On the tenth anniversary in 2012 we presented this cake to Margaret Fitzwalter, whose garden this was, and who so generously shared the proceeds of this event with the HPS and gardening community in the region. To bring sometimes upwards of a thousand people out to a Snowdrop Day in mid-February is no mean feat, and shows again the unique role of these plants in the garden!

Another Kentish connection is this plant, G. elwesii 'Gravesend Giant' - only named as such because this species is really a giant amongst snowdrops to the casual observer (which most observers are). It was picked up as a few discarded bulbs left on a path in a park in Gravesend by the great alpine gardener Eric Jarrett, when he lived locally. So its connection, as with so many snowdrops, is as much to do with a person as it is with place. Visiting the Early RHS Spring Show in London yesterday, and seeing the beautiful displays made by Avon Bulbs and Roger Harvey (I will append some pictures at the end of this entry) - and meeting gardeners - it is very evident that these individual connections are absolutely central to horticulture and gardening, and snowdrops exemplify them more probably than any other plant.

Another 'Alpine Garden Society' connection in Kent is Spring Platt, the garden belonging to John and Carolyn Millen (who run the Mid-Kent Group of the AGS, which meets at Bearsted in Maidstone). Carolyn and her daughter Julie are avid collectors and propagators (by twin scaling) of snowdrops - see: http://kentsnowdrops.com - and grow them individually in raised beds, as in the picture, but also more and more as drifts in the garden. To grow upwards of 500 different cultivars may seem extraordinary, but visit the garden on a cold February day, perched on the North Downs overlooking the Weald of Kent, supping warm soup and leafing through Carolyn's copies of snowdrop books, and you will begin to find the friendship that comes from growing these plants and opening your garden to others in winter.

In other cases snowdrops bring that fascination to the smallest and most private of gardens, such as this example in the Medway Towns - owned by John Finch, who knows and grows many unusual snowdrops from enthusiasts in Europe. Here they combine with ferns and cyclamen and hellebores, before the later perennials of spring and summer emerge.

Finally, proof that snowdrops are only really part of the winter picture. In Harris Howland's garden, at Harrietsham, they combine with Eranthis and Crocus in spectacular manner.

So what is it about snowdrops that leads to this passionate interest in them? It is not only that they are often relatively rare and costly, which can bring out a distorted sense of their 'value', but fundamentally the form and charm of this plant in winter. This picture perhaps goes some way to sum this up... they bridge that divide between Art and (botanical) Science, and bring both of these ways of thinking into the garden, but also relate them to the natural ecology of the world outside the garden in a rather unique way (thus my opening pictures taken in local woodland).

There are nineteen recognised species of snowdrops (with room always for debate) and all those grown in gardens ultimately derive from these. This map, shared on the Wikipedia entry for 'Galanthus', gives a valuable overview of their distributions through Europe and most notably in Turkey and around the Black Sea.

(This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license). 

 

So though very many people will only be familiar with the naturalised G. nivalis in British woodlands, which has the most extensive distribution of any snowdrop, their diversity quickly becomes evident when a range of species is grown in the garden, and of course these cross extensively and evolve rapidly in cultivation. That common comment that they are all just 'white and green' winter flowers quickly loses any validity! 

The purist - and members of the Alpine Garden Society will often tend to this description - is drawn to true wild species, both from botanical interest in the plants but also from observing them in their natural environment. However, once these are grown together in the narrow confines of the garden they inevitably hybridise and often produce progeny with hybrid vigour and more striking form. In nature too there is always considerably more variation than evident from introduced plants, and where species overlap, hybridisation and introgression. The fact that snowdrops flower so uniquely through the coldest months means that these differences become horticulturally emphasized and more significant in the garden.

In the following examples growing in our garden I will attempt to illustrate some (a very small part!) of this diversity, and try to convince you of the real value it does bring. A step beyond is the undeniable personal nature, and 'personality' of snowdrops, rather unique to the genus Galanthus, which gives them such individuality. The fact that snowdrops are so regularly selected and named from different gardens is the result of aesthetic comparison, a discriminating eye, and that continual search for the 'out of the ordinary'. That we share these observations with each other, and celebrate them (just visit a few snowdrop days to see this in action!) and exchange plants shows how important is this appreciation of detail in our immediate surroundings.

The strongest growing and boldest of snowdrops are forms of G. elwesii and its hybrids, as different from the familiar G. nivalis as it is possible to be. Many of these flower early through January, some in November and December, and put on strong leaf growth into spring. They can form huge bulbs, growing at depth where moisture will be retained in the driest of summers, and dramatic clumps of foliage. These are two examples: G. 'Reverend Hailstone', a hybrid snowdrop from Anglesey Abbey with good large flowers, and a true form of G. elwesii (ex. Kath Dryden). Both thrive in our garden in open sunny spots, dry in summer near to deciduous trees, and have proved tolerant and reliable.

In this picture contrasting snowdrops growing together beneath a large specimen of Rosa moyesii show how their form can be accentuated in the garden setting. On the left are three forms of G.elwesii, Edward Whittall Group, 'Kite' and 'Ransom's Dwarf'. In the centre, the very striking form of G. plicatus 'Gerard Parker'. And to the right the fine hybrid, 'Mrs Thompson', a snowdrop that often shows multi-flowered stems and individual flowers with extra tepals.

The diminutive 'Ransom's Dwarf' is especially distinctive, with a fine connection to Herbert Ransom, historically one of the most significant of Galanthophiles - well worth growing in any garden.

Galanthus plicatus often shows the bold foliage and very striking flowers of this example named for 'Gerard Parker', who was a teacher contemporaneous with Frederick Stern and E.A. Bowles (and certainly equally if not more knowledgeable about the genus as either of these famous plantsmen). This particular form of G. plicatus is fertile and hybridises readily in the garden, whereas the fine plicatus form 'Augustus' (named for Bowles) does not set seed - though has contributed to interesting hybrid plants in our garden. 

Here on the left is 'Augustus' growing under a Medlar, with G. nivalis on the right following the hedge line and various hybrids between the two and G. plicatus 'Trym' in between.

Returning to the map for a moment, there are a number of very distinctive snowdrop species with green rather than the more typical glaucous silver-grey foliage, and in the garden these do stand out. Three that we grow are G. woronowii, G. rizehensis and G. ikariae, and they each add greatly to the garden, as well as introducing that botanical integrity that I referred to earlier. From the map you will also see the very unique origins of the latter species from the Aegean Islands in the Mediterranean. Despite this it has proved fully hardy with us, and free seeding, producing a delightful drift under a row of cordon crab-apples.

Galanthus rizehensis, with a relatively small natural distribution, is uncommon in gardens but delightful to grow - it acts to balance that innate desire from gardeners for larger and more showy flowers and has definite charm. 

And G. woronowii, much more familar to gardeners because it has been extensively imported from the wild, is an excellent garden plant - striking for its often glossy broad green leaves, and in this form good large flowers.

In fact G. nivalis can sometimes have atypically green leaves and this famous example, 'Anglesey Abbey', with semi-poculiform flowers is well described in the Monograph of Cultivated Galanthus writen by Matt Bishop, Aaron Davis and John Grimshaw. It really is a worthwhile garden snowdrop - very distinct and a fine contrast to all others.

In the picture below it grows top-right under Hydrangea aspera subsp. sargentiana.

We grow many of our snowdrops under rows of dwarf apples in combination with a wide variety of other woodland plants, notably hellebores. However this and a later picture hide a sad truth that snowdrops can be vulnerable to pests and diseases, and these fine clumps from some years back have been decimated by the fungal pathogen Stagonospora curtisii, probably introduced from an infected plant. Fortunately in a large garden it is possible to establish duplicate colonies in different places but that risk of infection is always there with a significant collection.

None the less the successes have outweighed the failures and regularly establishing new colonies, as well as the increasing maturity of plantings - where the soil fauna, as in woodlands, achieves a more natural ecological balance - encourage us to develop the snowdrop plantings more each year. 

The most effective planting is the oldest where snowdrops and eranthis have begun to naturalise under a cobnut in one of the summer-driest parts of the garden, where the soil is more shallow, overlying chalk.

Here there is strong connection with Rosemary Powis, secretary of our AGS Group for very many years and a good friend, who also gave me four or five relatively common cultivars of snowdrops some fifteen to twenty years ago, to add to the G. nivalis which is all that we then grew. That connection with people is very strong and a rejoinder to anyone who dismisses snowdrops out of hand for their superficial similarities and cost.

When they have finished flowering this area fills with perennials - Brunnera, Myrrhis, Tellima, Anthriscus sylvestris 'Ravenswing' - and later is left to its own devices until autumn and early winter when cleared for the emergence of the snowdrops again. It has the potential for a much greater variety of winter and early spring species to combine with the snowdrops, and has become one of the most natural and pleasing parts of the garden.

Where the snowdrops still thrive under the rows of apples they combine with a more colourful later mix of woodland genera such as Epimedium, Trillium, Erythronium and Hellebore, and ferns.

In these areas too, it is the snowdrops that have really stimulated the overall richness and succession of the planting, so that diversity of this one genus in winter is really no different to that remarkable diversity of many genera that follows into spring, and the whole gardens gains as a result.

These final two pictures of the classic snowdrop cultivars 'Wasp' and 'Cicely Hall', hugely contrasting both in form and time of flowering, catch that perennial appeal of collecting snowdrops and show why James Allen and E.A. Bowles a century ago were gardeners little different to the plantsmen and women of today!

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