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A Northumberland Alpine Gardener's Diary

This entry: 15 February 2010 by John Richards

Northumberland Diary. Entry 139.


One of the most striking trends in modern horticulture has been the enormous growth in interest in snowdrops over the last decade or so, doubtless triggered by the peerless 'Snowdrops' (Bishop, Davis  & Grimshaw, 2001), every Galanthophile's vade mecum. Pick up any Garden Mag., gardening article in a newspaper, Country Mag., even local rag in mid February and you can be sure that what is essentially the same article on snowdrops and Galanthomania takes centre stage.

One of the great advances has been 'twin-scaling', the ability to subdivide a single bulbs into many segments, each of which can be propagated into tiny bulblets which are painstakingly grown to maturity. I do wonder at times quite how vigorous the resulting plantlets are, especially bearing in mind the vast prices that some of the most desirable forms can fetch. I also think that some ruthless nurserymen have cashed in on the ignorance of some 'would-be' maniacs. Several times recently I have seen single bulbs of G. woronowii, which is a terrible weed here, priced at £3, which, frankly, is daylight robbery. But, if people are prepared to pay these exalted prices, who, I suppose, can blame them?

One of the features of Galanthomania is, that whereas it has a season, a time of year when not a great deal else happens in the garden, which may in a sense explain its popularity, that season varies between years. Not surprisingly, 2010 is very late, but when I researched this contribution by scanning back over diary entries for the last three springs, I was surprised to discover that it is no later than last year, while snowdrops in 2007 and 2008 were much earlier, up to a month earlier, and the season had essentially finished by this date, February 15th, on those occasions.

None of this makes life easy for the afficionados, those who organise, sell at or visit Snowdrop Galas, snowdrop lunches, teas, breakfasts, brunches or goodness knows what other chi-chi gatherings to worship at the altar of the little white bulb. Of course, we northerners have no truck with these frills and fancies, and have to put up with visiting one anothers gardens and swapping good plants 'in the green' , the only way to acquire a snowdrop.

Having said which, snowdrops have a long season, and some are earlier than others. Some are of course really early, flowering in late September even, and in the case of many G. elwesii forms and crosses, late autumn or December. Rod Leeds specialises in these early plants and has written several infiormative articles, not least in the AGS Bulletin, in praise of these early plants. That seems to work less well 'up north', at least in a winter such as ours. For instance, 'Three Ships' which traditionally heralds Christmas, did not come through the ground until February this year, and is only now approaching its best, which in my view is very good indeed.


If Galanthomania is the craze, so those who take a fanatical, obsessive interest in snowdrops, are 'Galanthophiles'. Until recently I was quite certain that I was not amongst their number. Now I am not quite so sure. Walking around the garden this afternoon I counted at least 25 different varieties, about one third of which are now in full flower. And I do like them. In many ways snowdrops are the ultimate plantsman's plant, the refuge of the obsessive collector, and those intrigued by minutiae. After all, I have spent two-thirds of my life studying the taxonomy of dandelions, so I am neither fazed by insignificant differences, nor a multitude of varieties!

Then again, if I was a true Galanthophile, I would grow ten times this number of varieties. Indeed, my proud boast is that I have never bought a snowdrop, and I don't intend to start now! I have never twin-scaled a snowdrop, and I have never propagated one, except by digging in a fork, pulling a strong clump apart, and handing a few bulbs over to a visitor. My labelling leaves something to be desired, and there are quite a few plants here, seedlings especially, that are something of a mystery. Certainly, I don't consort with Galanthophiles, and if I did they would find me lamentably ignorant, so this is probably just as well. Also, I lack other characteristics typical of many male Galanthophiles, but I won't pursue this topic, and if you don't know what I mean, tant pis!

Enough! Here are a few varieties that I haven't shown before, starting with that very old Irish plant, 'Straffan' dating from 160 years ago. This plicatus cross is big, bonny, and exceptionally vigorous here, a welcome present from Jim Almond about five years ago.


Next is Galanthus 'Dionysus'. Again, I have only had this about five years, but it has grown very well and I have several burgeoning clumps. There is an interesting discussion about this plant by Matt Bishop in 'Snowdrops'. Apparently, the original naming by the late Richard Nutt is recorded by a herbarium specimen at the RHS which shows a rather ordinary nivalis double. However, the plant we grow today, although also double, is a 'Greatorex double', of plicatus parentage, with very neat flowers. The assumption seems to be that Nutt made a mistake when preserving the plant. However, in Botany, the 'type rules OK', so that if our plant is not Nutt's 'Dionysus', as represented by his specimen, then we should find another name for our 'Dionysus'. Whatever, its a good thing, and a good doer.

Staying with double snowdrops, when I was a young sprog 35 years ago, and even more ignorant about snowdrops than I am now, I was greatly struck by the fact that many of our local woodlands were dominated by a sterile double nivalis snowdrop, often to the exclusion of anything else. This is a very distinctive plant that seems to vary little. Its good points are that it opens early and has a very long flowering season, the flower stays open whatever the weather (being double), the flower is relatively large, and the plant is very vigorous. The bad points are that it is dumpy and rather inelegant in stature, the flowers can be rather untidy, and that it is rather susceptible to mould, probably botrytis. Trying to make a name for myself, I mentioned this plant to Richard Nutt, who kindly asked me to send him some material, which I did, and it was never heard of again! I now know that the 'Hexham double' , as I called it in my innocence, is a fairly standard nivalis 'Flore Pleno'.

Now for something much more refined. A few springs ago we visited the northern Greek mountain Vermion in mid April (the summer before last we went there again in June and showed pictures of Daphne sokjae in this diary, but that is another story). In April, as I reported in the AGS book 'Mountain Flower Walks, the Greek Mainland', we found both Galanthus elwesii, G. gracilis, and hybrids between them. Since then, according to Lafranchis and Sfikas in their monumental (and correspondingly expensive) new book 'Flowers of Greece', G. gracilis is now treated as  var. stenophyllus of G. elwesii. From evidence of hybridisation in the field, and similar leaf markings, this is certainly a point of view. However, the narrow twisted leaves and applanate vernation of G. gracilis is so distinct, that it seems difficult to submerge it entirely within G. elwesii. Also, most G. elwesii fail here, except with a high pH with good drainage in full light, but so far G. gracilis has grown well in woodland conditions.

Just a little 'sandersii' to finish with. I have shown the 'Northumberland yellow snowdrop' before, and am about to have an article about them published in 'The Plantsman'. But this is a vigorous seedling of very small stature which might be worth further notice. It is not in full flower yet, but it is very small, and a good spreader. I was delighted to note at least four new yellow seedlings flowering for the first time this year, the seeds spread I imagine, by ants.

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