Alpine Garden Society

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Snowdrops - Don Palmer (21/02/14)

Don has been growing snowdrops for years and knows them in great depth. He is an original galanthophile having been to the first Galanthus Gala and met the key growers, collecting steadily and wisely. He talks with plants, linking them to history.

Snowdrops are not native to Britain but they have been here for hundreds of years. Don thinks monks may have brought them here from Europe, for children to hold at Candlemas, in the 5th Century.

He described the three key species which have been the origins of most of our current cultivars.

Galanthus nivalis is our “common” snowdrop. This is the one which has been here the longest. They naturally grow in central/southern Europe. It has a small flower, flowering relatively late. The leaves emerge neatly protecting the emerging florescence, ideally pointed to push through frozen soil. Most snowdrops love humus rich, light woodlands with moister soils. They are only dormant for a brief time in the summer when the ground dries up and this is the best time to lift them for division.

In the 1600’s the Turkish snowdrop; Galanthus plicatus, was brought here, but was expensive so was just found in gardens of wealthy landowners. G. plicatus has two distinct forms distinguished by the markings on the inner petals. Galanthus plicatus ssp. byzantinus has marks both top and bottom of the inner petals. The leaves are distinctly pleated, folding back around the emerging flower.

Galanthus elwesii came here accidentally in a batch of 200 snowdrops from Greece planted in Colesbourne Park in late 19th Century. Their emerging leaves wrap around the emerging flower like a Tulip.

Don mentioned a few of the other interesting species; G. gracilis the ‘Bird’s Nest’; G. woronowii with bright green leaves; G. reginae olgae the Autumn snowdrop; and G. peshmenii which flowers in November. All snowdrops hang their heads which protects them from winter weather. Also flowering with snowdrops are the snowflakes, Leucojum vernum, which always causes confusion.

Over time, as the first three species were left to increase and hybridise for 100 years, we started to notice interesting variations.

There have always been a natural population of doubles, Galanthus nivalis ‘Flore Pleno’. There are selections which have neater flowers like ‘Lady Beatrix Stanley’ and ‘Barbara’s Double’. Then there are stronger neater hybrids formed by crossing ‘Flore Pleno’ with G. plicatus. They have been named after Shakespearean Heroines.

Other major differences are yellows or having green on the outer petals. Yellow marks instead of green are equivalent to albinos and are very appealing but are often weaker plants. G. ‘Wendy’s Gold’ is a strong growing yellow plicatus form. G. ‘Trym’ is most dramatic with the outer petals being shaped more like the inner petals but flaring outwards. ‘Trymlet’ is a vigorous seedling of ‘Trym’.

Lastly a bunch of snowdrops and Irises was offered for the raffle to highlight their scent. All except the doubles of course because they are sterile with the reproductive parts converted to petals.

Gillian Ingram
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