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A soliloquy on snowdrops

January 23, 2019
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My very first diary entry in January 2014 decribed the ‘Ultimate Snowdrop Sale’ at Myddelton House. Five years later perhaps is a good time to take stock about the role of snowdrops in gardens in view of the burgeoning interest in them, exemplified within the AGS by the Snowdrop Day held each year, one of many which occur around the country.

From the botanical perspective, the proliferation of named varieties of snowdrops can seem like a horticultural over-enthusiasm, but essentially it is little different to many other groups of garden plants that stimulate a strong following – such as daffodils, tulips, dahlias and roses – where in each case novelty is a driving force. In several respects though, it is different because snowdrops are almost entirely grown as ‘garden’ plants, rather than raised for exhibition and competition (with the exception of the winter shows held by the AGS which are a special case). Few snowdrops either are raised by deliberate hybridisation, though there are recently significant examples from individuals such as Joe Sharman and Anne Wright. Most arise in gardens and so tend to be less visible in the wider horticultural world. So snowdrops relate to people and gardens in unique ways, which the recent book The Galanthophiles by Jane Kilpatrick and Jennifer Harman describes in scholarly detail.

That gives snowdrops an unusual horticultural perspective over time similar in many ways to the plantsmanship described within the AGS bulletin and journal from its early days in the 1930s. Snowdrops ‘evolve’ within our gardens, but the ways they do resonate with wider ecological change because how they are grown can give continuity and form to gardens as a result of the natural needs they have to thrive. Long established drifts of snowdrops – and other bulbs – in grass, as here at Myddelton House speak of the relative permanence of gardens even in a human landscape subject to constant change.

Any natural historian is inevitably drawn into the extraordinary detail of the natural world and relationships within it – simply put its ecology. Snowdrops by analogy bring the gardener directly into the equation. Where science looks to the universal, gardens look to the individual, and it could be said that something even more fascinating emerges as a result. Even though snowdrops proliferate wildly from their natural origins, they seldom lose their natural appeal grown in numbers and so take the garden in harmonious directions.

Snowdrops have become an important part of our garden, especially because of the links they make to other gardeners past and present. And this is the time when their impact is strongest and when many of these links are forged. So this is a personal account for the winter of 2018/19 as we prepare the garden for opening to the public and to members of our local AGS groups this February.

The story begins though a year earlier when I gave a talk to the Kent Group of the Hardy Plant Society on ‘Snowdrops and Hellebores’. In the audience was a member, Julia Jarman, who was moving from the garden she had made over many years and asked us if we would like the snowdrops she had collected and grown over that time. First of all that was a remarkably generous gesture (and has prompted this diary entry) and secondly showed the value that she (and other gardeners) do place on snowdrops in making a garden, and which despite the inflated prices that they can command is actually not directly related to this at all except in the way it does define the ‘true’ value that they hold.

In the summer, I visited Julia’s garden when the bulbs were dormant and had been lifted, many grown in lattice pots plunged in the ground, which is a good way of keeping them discrete and maintaining their identity (and may also protect them from soil pests such as swift moth caterpillars). They were grown amongst herbaceous perennials and shrubs very successfully in the heavy loam of her garden. In summer though the vigorous growth of plants gave no hint of how the garden must look in winter, and here is an essential feature of snowdrops (and many other early bulbs and winter flowers): the way the garden cycles in identity through the seasons. In winter, flowers are rare and subtle and this in large part explains the great appeal of snowdrops which can form extensive drifts of remarkable beauty. And in doing so they influence the gardener in preparing for the New Year. Here in summer in Julia’s garden RodgersiaAstilbeSisyrinchium and Phlomis light up the scene, showing true artistry and balance.

Julia, by any account, is a very fine gardener and has had a varied and dynamic life, from running a business in New York to singing in Spain. That same imagination and resolve – and artistry – resulted in the garden she has made near to Tunbridge Wells which these pictures show.

You might think that snowdrops then would only be a minor contribution to the artistry on show here but the truth is the value they clearly hold to her shows that this is by no means so. Winter has a disproportionate importance across all the seasons of the garden and snowdrops come to epitomise that.

As we work on the garden here to open it for the National Garden Scheme and nursery in February, these pictures show how the snowdrops Julia gave us are being incorporated into the woodland plantings. Compared to the more natural way snowdrops (mostly Galanthus nivalis) spread and proliferate in long standing woodlands, here that community of plants is transposed to the more artificial situation of the garden. Nonetheless, and despite considerable input from the gardener, the result heads in the way of the natural world ,which hopefully shows a growing understanding of ecology and interactions between plants. This is the marvel of Snowdrop Day and welcoming visitors to the garden in winter, when many people will think of plants as being dormant and of little interest.

Image of Tim Ingram Tim Ingram

Tim Ingram runs Copton Ash Nursery in Faversham, Kent with his wife Gillian. He has has a keen interest in plants since childhoos and his first patch was a raised rock garden in his teens.

Tim has been a member of the Alpine Garden Society for most of his gardening life. He is also an active member of two AGS groups: East Kent and Mid Kent.