What is fragile but can push through iron-hard ground; delicate, but strong enough to withstand icy blasts; scented and paper thin but doesn’t damage, even in snow? Answer: Galanthus Nivalis, the common snowdrop!
It is almost miraculous how this delicate little flower not only survives our very coldest, wettest and most extreme weathers but also comes back year on year, more and more prolifically. Though not native, these colonies have escaped from collectors’ gardens and are now happily carpeting our hedgerows, woods, parklands and churchyards from January almost through to March, as if they have always been there.
I have a friend who happens to be married to a vicar, and she enjoys a special dispensation to pick the snowdrops in the churchyard – or in their case, 5 churchyards! The rest of us need to content ourselves with simply enjoying the sight of their simple, fresh white elegance. Without doubt, they are winter’s daintiest of jewels: on a sunny day you can catch their delicate scent as well as appreciate close up, how their almost magical, fairy-like bell is suspended from the flimsiest of pedicels. There was a time when they were synonymous with purity and called Candlemass Bells, as they were in flower for the Feast of Purification, celebrated on February 2nd. Certainly, it is a fitting symbol for the new year with its promise of a clean, white start: it heralds the lengthening of days and pledges the inevitability of spring. In addition, I know of no other bulb that has such staying flower power. Pound for pound you get more flowers for your buck and at a time when they are most needed. Little wonder we Brits get so excited by them!
Fit for the gods
But, we are very late to the party. The snowdrop craze in this country didn’t get underway until well into the 19th Century, when as well as plant hunters, soldiers returned with the cheering flower from their traumas in the Crimean War. However, once again, the Ancient Greeks got there first! It is thought that Homer is referring to them in the Odyssey: “the flower as white as milk, the gods call it moly”. Moly was the herb given to Odysseus to protect him from goddess Circe’s deadly potions. Bringing the story full circle, chemists have identified and extracted galantamine from the bulb, which is now synthesised and used in the treatment of the early stages of Alzheimer’s, among other conditions.
If you want to start or boost your own collection, galanthophiles agree that planting the bulbs deep – about 15 cm – in a sunny spot, in rich, but well-drained soil is the ideal treatment. Give each bulb room to multiply, so plant at least 15 cm apart. However, whether you do this “in the green” (that is while they have foliage but after the flowers have gone over) or while the bulbs are dormant is still hotly debated. If you are lifting and dividing your clumps of bulbs, be very careful to keep all the roots intact and keep them wrapped in wet kitchen towel so that they don’t dry out. Finally, after flowering, top dress with a sprinkling of bone meal, to further “feed” the bulb.
With over 250 cultivars at Colesbourne Park alone, (once called England’s greatest snowdrop garden, see below) the choice can be overwhelming, so here are a few to get you started:
Best for beginners: Galanthus (G.) “S. Arnott”; sturdy, 25 cm tall, sweetly scented, fast to increase, and giving many weeks of interest because the flowers open a few at a time.
Early flowering: G. elwesii Peter Gatehouse; flowers in November, short and sturdy at 10cm
Late flowering: G. elwesii Marjorie Brown; flowers in March, vigorous, 17cm tall with wide arched leaves
Most unusual: G Primrose Warburg; clean primrose yellow ovary and horseshoe print on inner segment
Where to see them
Snowdrop Festivals are proving ever popular and many estates, National Garden Scheme gardens and National Trust properties all over the country open their gates to visitors from late January to early March.
Colesbourne Park; Glos. GL53 9NP open Sat & Sun
The Garden House; Devon PL20 7LQ open Fri, Sat & Sun
Myddelton House; Enfield EN2 9HG; for The Ultimate Snowdrop Sale on Sat 26th Jan
Welford Park; Berkshire, RG20 8HU open Weds-Sun all Feb
Anglesey Abbey; Cambridge, CB25 9EJ open daily
Cambo Gardens; Fife, KY16 8QD open daily
Finally, if you want to go local, check out gardens not normally open to the public and raise money for a good cause, look no further than the National Garden Scheme. An inspired national charity that champions private gardens as much as the professional ones, their ‘Find a Garden’ app will help you find your most local gardens to visit from more than 3800 in England and Wales that open for at least one day each year to help raise money for caring and nursing charities.
Don’t let the cold put you off – wrap up, head into the great outdoors and take inspiration from the hardiest of all British flowers.