It seems there is no slowing down in the immense interest that the humble snowdrop generates. Their worth continues to increase quicker and more than any other plant I know. My mind turns to thinking about them as this coming Sunday I am talking at the Kent Hardy Plant Society Snowdrop Day at Goodnestone Park.
Here at Sissinghurst we don’t go for botanical rarities or ‘expensive’ sorts – for us it is the historical, literacy and beauty of the individual plant that is important. We grow 13 varieties in the garden and are bulking up a dozen other types in the nursery prior to planting out. It is our hope over the coming years to increase the group sizes,particularly on the banks of the moat.
The early history of snowdrop cultivation is a little obscure. They do not seem to have been particularly familiar (or perhaps valued) by gardeners in the late C16th and C17th, but Galanthus nivalis was being grown in London in 1600. The term snowdrop was first recorded in the 1633 edition of Gerard’s Herball.
There seems to be a strong association with the Church festival of Purification, or Candlemas, held on February 2nd each year, perhaps explaining the frequent abundance of G.nivalis around former ecclesiastical and monastic sites in the British Isles. It is clear, however, that snowdrops were extensively planted in woodland throughout Britain over a long period.
Interest in Galanthus developed in the mid C19th, snowdrops becoming a frequent motif in Victorian design and literature. New introductions were made by soldiers returning from the Crimean War and it became much easier for botanists and plant collectors to travel in central/eastern Europe and Asia Minor. The number of species in cultivation gradually increased and the first cultivars were selected.
The 1880s saw a surge in interest, with the first hybrids appearing and many new selections being made. This is reflected in the fact that the RHS held its first Snowdrop Conference in 1891. Interest continued up until at least the First World War.
Studies of Galanthus were carried out periodically during the C20th, with new cultivars being added, whilst others fell away due to disease. An analysis in 1993 described 108 cultivars. The past two decades, however, have seen a phenomenal rise in the number of named snowdrops, which has now risen to around 500.
Those who are seriously interested in snowdrops have come to be known as galanthophiles.
Whilst snowdrops may superficially all look the same, there is a great deal of variety between the different species and cultivars and therein lies the fascination for such enthusiasts.
Around this time of year, many ‘soup and snowdrop’ and ‘galanthus gala’ events are organised in Britain, arousing much interest, both nationally and as far afield as Sweden and Lithuania. On such occasions, rare snowdrops are bought, sold or exchanged, sometimes for as much as £750 per bulb.
Botany, cultivation and propagation
The genus Galanthus includes 19 species of bulbous perennials from Europe to western Asia. Most originate in upland woodland but they are also found in rocky sites.
Plants commonly bloom from late winter to mid-spring, each bulb usually producing a single, pendent (hanging) flower. The flowers are pear-shaped and white, with 3 inner tepals (petals) with green, rarely yellow, markings and 3 larger, spreading outer tepals. They are occasionally scented.
Most snowdrops are vigorous and easily grown, flourishing in borders or rock gardens, with some being suitable for naturalising in grass or light woodland. Two excellent varieties are Galanthus ‘Atkinsii’ and G. ‘S. Arnott’.
Plants are fully hardy (-15) to frost hardy (-5).
Grow in humus-rich, moist but well-drained soil that does not dry out in summer, in partial shade.
Sow the seed of species in containers in an open frame, as soon as it is ripe, and shade during the summer months. Species hybridise readily in gardens, so the seed may not come true.
Lift and divide clumps as soon as the leaves begin to die down after flowering – they will soon bulk-up.
Galanthus are prone to narcissus bulb fly (single maggot eats away centre of bulb) and grey mould (botrytis– grey fluffy mould develops on infected areas)
All parts may cause mild stomach upset. Contact with bulb may cause skin irritation.
Troy, Head Gardener