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December snowdrops

December 20, 2019
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If you want to cause a kerfuffle on social media then posting a picture of a snowdrop before Christmas is always a good way. Hand-wringing about befuddled botanicals and concerns about climate change will almost certainly follow.

The peak season for snowdrops is February and so appearances in Advent rightly cause concern amongst the climate conscious gardener. In reality, the season for some snowdrops starts much earlier or later than this. Like the best pantomime dame, however, there are a number of species and cultivars which like to put in an appearance for Christmas.

Whilst not all snowdrop names derive from flowering time, scanning the index of book Snowdrops by Bishop, Davis and Grimshaw it’s possible to spot a number of varieties whose names demonstrate their eagerness to flower; ‘Armistice Day’, ‘Earliest’, ‘Earliest of all’ and ‘November Merlin’ are good examples here. There are also a few with Christmassy names; ‘Yuletide’, ‘Christmas Cheer’, ‘Tiny Tim’ and ‘Three Ships’.

My collection is still small but here are some snowdrops that are eager to light up the garden with their white Christmas lights.

Galanthus plicatus  ‘Hollis’

Earlier in the week, I walked past the house of a friend who died last spring. I was very happy to see many clumps of early flowering varieties blooming in the garden he used to own. I called him Mr. Snowdrop but his real name was Dr. Dowling Monroe and he was a keen snowdrop collector. 

Snowdrops are not all the same and Dowling knew how to identify the different species, cultivars and hybrids and so was able to identify a unique variety growing in his own garden. An early flowering elwesii variety, he named it ‘Hollis’ after the road he lived on. He gave me a pot of these in full flower in November 2018. I watched anxiously for them to emerge this year in November and was really happy to see that not only had they reappeared but that there were new flowering stems and it was beginning to clump up.

Galanthus  ‘Robin Hood’

A variety called Robin Hood was first identified in 1891 and was drawn several times by snowdrop collector E.A. Bowles of Myddleton House. Earlier paintings differ in appearance from the modern variety pictured so it’s thought to not be the ‘Robin Hood’ that is grown today. However, a later pencil drawing by Bowles made in 1948 does resemble the modern variety sold as ‘Robin Hood’.

This is an elegant snowdrop with tall stems. In Snowdrops, Matt Bishop, Aaron Davis and John Grimshaw describe it as having ‘distinctive poise’.

Galanthus  ‘Early to Rize’

Disappointingly, this variety whilst early-ish to rise isn’t the first to flower and is unlikely to do so before Christmas despite the generally warm weather. This one is in my own collection and is one of several bulbs gifted to me last summer as dormant bulbs by Jane and Rod Leaves, to whom Dowling had introduced me at the 2019 AGS Snowdrop Day.  The change of spelling of the word “rise” was used to make the connection to the species Galanthus rizehensis which is in the parentage of this plant.

Galanthus  ‘Three Ships’

This is my favourite early flowerer, G. plicatus ‘Three Ships’. Named after the beautiful carol that’s so evocative of Christmas. I love the fact that whoever named this one was celebrating its flowering time and, sure enough, in the week running up to Christmas it’s in full flower.

My little pot of two bulbs was another of the gifts from Rod and Jane Leeds and one bulb has even put out two flowers. I like to think that its name is due at least in part to the fact that when fully open, the flower petals look like the three billowing sails.

A little note on how I’m growing my snowdrops

I wrote for the AGS last year about my growing galanthophilia. As a plantaholic, I always like to have something of interest to visit in the garden, whatever the season. Snowdrops provide pure white beauty in the cold depths of winter. 

Mr. Snowdrop grew some snowdrops out in his garden and bemoaned the way the labels wandered off. However, many of his special snowdrops were in pots and pond baskets plunged in the soil around the perimeter of his garden, the equivalent of his collector’s shelf.  When he died, the entire collection was donated by his family to Lord Heseltine’s garden at Thenford, a task made easier because they were already potted. 

In contrast, the Chairman of the AGS Chiltern Group also has a lovely collection of snowdrops but most are planted around the garden. He and his wife believe they multiply more quickly if happier in the soil, whereas Dowling used to twin scale his precious bulbs to make new plants. They used to spar verbally at meetings about whose approach was better!

I like the idea of having a little collection that I can monitor and visit. My garden is large and I’d worry I’d lose some of the special ones and miss their flowering whilst hiding from the winter cold indoors. So I have filled two 10-year old recycled plastic cold frames with sand to use as a plunge bed. I have 15 pots in them, mostly of bulbs bought or given to me dormant in July from Wol Staines and Rod and Jane Leeds. Every one of them has started growing and I have some lovely ones to look forward to in the New Year.

Image of Katharine Woods Katharine Woods

Our beginner alpine gardener, Katharine is a busy mother of three living in the Chiltern Hills. She'll be detailing her experiences with growing alpines and hardy plants in her own garden. Katharine also writes her own blog, The Tea Break Gardener, documenting the wide variety of plants she grows, from perennials to houseplants.