The first of the early season snowdrops are already brightening these darkened days and the season is made that much lighter for their companionship. A winter without them would be a very different thing and I freely admit to being thrown under their spell. A charm that was cast a few years ago with a handful of treasures that were kindly gifted to me by Mary Keen at one of her snowdrop lunches. Snowdrops that she took us to meet in her wintery garden and plants she had taken her time to get to know and were different enough from the usual Galanthus. Plants that gently entice you from the standing position to slow and ponder their particular qualities. A nod that distinguishes them from the crowd, a green tip to the outer petal perhaps, a puckering like seersucker or a completely albino or even gold interior.
I have never been a collector for the sake of collecting and I know from friends who have also found themselves spellbound, that galanthophilia is a slippery slope that can easily lead to a world of obsession and acquisition. That said, and knowing that I wanted to get to know more than a couple of hands full, I struck a pact with myself. To only grow good garden plants. Those which ‘do’ and not those that are fussy and fail on me. I want to be able to see the character of a plant from several paces when it is established and doing what it does best and for each one to offer something distinct. I also want to extend the season forward from February, the main snowdrop season, and to have the company of snowdrops in every week of the winter. Just as I do not want to have hundreds of friends – and bearing in mind that there are 900 or so varieties of galanthus – I just want the ones I can build a relationship with and rely upon. I want the keepers.
It takes time to get to know a plant, so over time I will share with you what I have learned with forms and varieties that are still new to me. The autumn flowering Galanthus reginae-olgae which I have only known for the last three years for instance, which prefer a sunnier, free draining position. It takes three years or so for a single bulb to start to clump and really five before you can see its specific character. How it does in a garden and feels as an individual. A plant such as ‘Fly Fishing’ (kindly gifted, thank you, by our friend Marcia) needs air around it to allow its suspended flowers to dance on elongated pedicels. Timing is also all important, so pairing a variety to coincide with a winter-flowering companion gives a red hamamelis or dark hellebore a bright undercurrent whilst having its moment.
Galanthus are the same as any garden plant. You get a better result for knowing their requirements and how that can be played to best effect in company. As a rule, galanthus like good living and a retentive ground that drains freely and does not lie wet. I planted part of my snowdrop trail in the heavy wet soil at the bottom of the hill where the ground never dries out in summer. The bulbs there failed in the wet areas where the juncus thrived, but the very same soil at the base of trees yielded entirely different results where the trees used the moisture in the summer to give the dormant galanthus a rest. On heavy ground slopes are ideal and hedge banks often provide an ideal position. Lighter soils that are free-draining will benefit from the addition of humus.
Getting to know my collection of ‘specials’ is a learning curve that I am happy to take my time to understand. I buy one bulb of each variety, ideally at the beginning of the growing season so that I can see them complete a life cycle. Paul Barney at Edulis Nursery has a distractingly good collection. I grow them in a stock bed at the base of a hawthorn hedge where in summer they can retreat into safe dormancy. Once they have started bulking, in the third year or so, the clumps are lifted as soon as they have flowered and moved to where I want them to be in the garden. Somewhere close to a path so that I can get to them easily and planted in good company so that they are not overwhelmed too early by precocious pulmonarias or cow parsley.
Of the three plants I am sharing with you this early into my chapter of snowdrop distraction, Galanthus plicatus ‘Three Ships’ (main image) is the first to flower after the relay of autumn snowdrops. ‘Three Ships’ was found under an ancient cork oak by John Morley in Suffolk and is reliably in flower at Christmas. Rare for G. plicatus to flower this early, it sits low to the ground over broad widely-spreading foliage, the rounded petals puckered and distinctly textured to capture dew or low, raking light.
Galanthus elwesii ‘Maidwell L’ was kindly gifted by Simon Bagnall, head gardener at Worcester College, Oxford, once again with the generosity of one galanthus lover to another (thank you). This is an early flowering form of G. elwesii, the broad-leaved species that has spawned a number of early to rise varieties. This is a good one, welcoming the first of January this year and showing vigour and willingness to do well on our heavy ground. I have loved this plant for the graceful unfurling of grey-green foliage, leaves which are broad and unroll like a scroll. A selection from Maidwell Hall, Northamptonshire made by Oliver Wyatt, the flowers stand tall at about 22cm and hold good poise.
Nearby, under the medlar I have a group of Galanthus elwesii ‘Mrs Macnamara’ (thank you Mary). Named after Dylan Thomas’s mother-in-law who grew it in her garden, it is reliably early and well known for good behaviour. Again, in flower by the first of the month or sometimes a little earlier, this is a nicely proportioned plant that you can recognise from a distance. Narrow, glaucous foliage is not as much part of the mood as it is with ‘Maidwell L’, but it all sits together very pleasingly, the large, slender flowers held perfectly, each in their own space like a drawing of a perfect snowdrop, but with perhaps a little more of everything.
Snowdrops should be split every five or six years to retain vigour in the clumps. I like to plant a couple of bulbs together or three for company as some sit and sulk and are slow to increase if planted alone. Do not ask me why and this is not the case for everybody. Divisions are best made after flowering or as the leaves fade into dormancy and before your attention is drawn elsewhere in spring and the spell they have cast over the winter is broken. As you lift and divide and extend the reach of the plant in question you are left with nothing but good feeling, as you pat the soil and say a little prayer that you will see them again after the commotion of a growing season is spent and done and quietened to allow them their glory.
Words: Dan Pearson | Photographs: Huw Morgan
Published 15 January 2022