I always think it’s a shame that hobbyists are the butt of jokes in the UK. Train spotters, Morris dancers, stamp collectors and middle aged men in lycra seem fair game for the bemused onlooker curious about why someone would devote their spare time to such pastimes.
Snowdrop collectors – known as galanthophiles after the Latin name for snowdrops, Galanthus – can fall into this category. You can guarantee that come January, column inches and radio airwaves will be devoted to articles about them. Most will mention the sometimes eye-watering prices a single bulb can sell for (£1,390 was paid on eBay for a single bulb of a variety called ‘Golden Fleece’ in 2015) and go on to describe the “secret society”, invitation-only snowdrop lunches where experts mingle.
Such stories appear to make snowdrop fans fair game for gentle sneering and references to fools and their money being easily parted. All snowdrops are the same aren’t they? Just little white flowers. Who wants to lie in the damp cold ground in winter to get a closer look?
A year ago I wasn’t exactly in the sneering camp but I was very much bemused by snowdrop fans. Recently, however, I’ve begun to see the pure white light. I’d even go so far as to say I’m a budding galanthophile.
Firstly, and quite by accident, I was introduced to a snowdrop collector who lives up the road from me. He has been collecting and propagating snowdrops for 30 years.
We toured his garden, where tiny pots of snowdrops were sunk into beds in every corner, each carefully labeled. He hadn’t counted how many varieties he had but he estimated it was in excess of 200, flowering in succession from autumn, right through to late spring.
He described how he used a process called twin scaling to turn one expensive bulb into a couple of dozen new ones and proudly showed me pots in his greenhouse containing tiny leaves of baby bulbs (known as bulbils) that he’d propagated from single bulbs last year.
He generously gave me a few small pots of named snowdrops in flower and when I got them home and took a close look I could spot the subtle differences in the form, markings and colourings of each one. I became entranced. A week later, camera in hand, I returned to Mr. Snowdrop’s garden to photograph some in his collection – noticing more and more differences between the characteristics of each one.
Galanthophilia was starting to incubate.
I offered to drive Mr. Snowdrop to Shropshire to attend the Alpine Garden Society’s annual Snowdrop Day, attended by keen collectors, breeders and nurseries from the UK and further afield. It was a reunion of sorts for my companion and he was generous in his introductions. I met many wonderful people who, like him, were keen to share their knowledge.
Five nurseries specialising in snowdrops lined their sales tables with hundreds of perky white blooms in pots, ranging in price from £6 up to £300 for a yellow variety called G. ‘Treasure Island’. Keen collectors had got there early and came prepared with bags and boxes to transport their snowdrops carefully home.
Whilst there was no competitive show element to the event, two nurseries had brought along potted examples of snowdrops in their prime. I was rather taken with a large pot of G. ‘Serraph’ on the stand of Rod and Jane Lees. This variety is the purest of whites and has six pointed petals, resembling something of a downward facing crocus.
Famed breeder Joe Sharman had a beguiling new citrus coloured variety on display – named ‘Louella’ – which he’s produced by crossing ‘Ecusson D’or’ with ‘Golden Fleece’.
Talks by snowdrop experts followed and, whilst they contained some technical details and snowdrop in-jokes, I learned so much. Slide by slide a beauty parade of pretty snowdrops filled the screen. I took notes of varieties that appealed to me, especially those that were described as doing well in the garden.
Anne Wright, breeder of the now famous Dryad Gold series of yellow snowdrops used her presentation to demystify the process of making multiple bulbs from one by twin-scaling or chipping. The process is essentially the magic porridge pot for multiplying snowdrops and looked like something anyone could try at home.
One day in Shropshire but so much learned from the experts. Here’s my summary of the main things I took away from the day:
1. Snowdrops are beautiful up close – some achingly so. It is little wonder that fans are so keen on them.
2. Not all snowdrops will clump up well in gardens. One that does well for a friend may not in your garden and it’s not always obvious why. You can ask the experts but they’re unlikely to be sure why a variety disappeared after just a season. This jeopardy appears to spur true galanthophiles on.
3. Snowdrops that do well in a garden are described as “good doers” those that don’t were referred to by some as “miffy”.
4. Unlike narcissi and tulips, snowdrops have yet to be diversified and bred commercially on a big scale. Breeders are skilled but expertise is concentrated in what can best be described as cottage industries. Knowledge and plants are shared freely and it is a field of gardening that feels cosy and collaborative despite the potential financial benefits of competition and secrecy.
5. Anyone may have an unusual variety in their garden. Many of the named varieties occurred by chance not design and were discovered in private gardens. Snowdrops are promiscuous and cross-pollinate freely – there could be white gold hiding under your hedge somewhere but you’d need to know your stuff to be able to identify it.
6. Green tipped or blushed varieties are known ‘virescent’ and are popular. The biggest trend in recent years has been for yellow marked varieties with yellow ovaries. Pure white varieties are also popular and really stand out on displays and in the winter garden.
7. There is a lot of botanical jargon associated with these plants. For example, a scape is a flower stem, a plicate leaf is one that is curved at the edges, a sinus is a nick in the inner petals, which are themselves known as inner perianth segments. Poculiform varieties have inner and outer segments of all the same length. This jargon may appear elitist but it is not designed to confuse the amateur. It is simply essential to help tell the different varieties apart. Don’t be put off.
8. Expensive bulbs are just an expression of rarity. It could take four years for a bulbil derived from a new variety to bulk up to flowering size. A high price usually just means that there are few in circulation at the moment and nothing more. If the variety continues to be popular and proves easy to propagate and look after, the price will come down.
9. Not all expensive bulbs will turn out to be “good doers”. Scanning old media articles from a decade ago, I read names that were lauded as exciting new introductions at the time but were absent on the benches at Snowdrop Day.
10. Snowdrop people are passionate. Some bulbs are expensive but no more so than a meal out at a restaurant. With a bit of care that bulb can provide a small clump of winter joy for years to come.
Did I buy anything? I’m a plantaholic so obviously I did. Also, it’ll soon be my birthday. But I question why I need to justify my purchase in that way. Each of my chosen varieties cost less than a decent sized garden shrub. Why should price equate to size? In the case of snowdrops what they lack in size they more than make up for in beauty.
With the guidance of my Mr. Snowdrop I bought a pretty green flushed variety called ‘Sprite’ and a yellow form called ‘Fiona’s Gold’. I’ll be seeking his advice on where to plant them and may also try propagating them. It’s the only way to learn.
If you like your plants and are anxious each year for spring to start to get your gardening fix – then starting a collection of snowdrops could be for you. Go along to a snowdrop day near you – there are lots out there at this time of year – but be warned – when amassed on a bench those gleaming white beguiling snowdrops are difficult to resist.
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.