Thursday, 13 February 2014

Snowdrops: spreading a wee bit of joy in the grip of winter

It's that time of year - February: cold, dark, wet, windy, snowy and all we want to do is hibernate until spring shows her pretty face. Here at Easter Mosshat, on our hill we have been very lucky with the weather this winter. Usually by now we will have had several falls of snow to varying degrees. At 850 feet above sea level it's inevitable we will get the brunt of any weather passing by. So not only does the garden go into hibernation, so does the gardener. Activities are usually warm ones, such as seed buying and garden planning, with a brief scurry to the greenhouse to check watering and the heater every few days. Wrapped in layers, wellies and hat and hunched over. Wasting no time in the bitter cold, I remind myself to stop and look for the Snowdrops.

Galanthus nivalis, the common Snowdrop
Our hearts and minds lift at the first sight of these tiny, delicate yet extremely hardy little gems. I have several cultivars dotted about the garden and also the Common Snowdrop Galanthus nivalis. The species spreads itself around very well if it is happy. The cultivars take a bit longer to bulk up, apart from Galanthus nivalis 'Flore Plena' which spreads as readily as its species cousin. The G. nivalis here at Easter Mosshat were one of the very few plants that still survived in the original garden of the derelict house we bought in 1999. I have spread them around the garden a bit since then, but there are still some in their original place at the corner of the front garden.

Galanthus 'John grey'
Galanthus 'Lady Elphinstone'

In recent years Snowdrops have become a bit of a collectable genus in the horticultural world. Their collectors have even earned their own collective name: Galanthophiles. People will pay a small fortune for one tiny bulb of rarer varieties, with some going for over £300! I once bought 3 bulbs of Galanthus 'John Grey' for £8 a bulb and thought that was excessive. There are many books on the subject and several specialist nurseries selling them. Popular and very collectable at the moment are yellow snow drops such as G. 'Wendy's Gold'. Another yellow is G. 'Lady Elphinstone', a double and so very striking.

Galanthus plicatus 'Billy'
Snowdrops require very little in terms of growing conditions. They prefer a shady woodland situation and will grow in most soils. Mine do very well on our clay soil here at Easter Mosshat. Some of the more unusual varieties are a bit more choosy and because they are a bit more expensive to buy, I like to grow them in my alpine troughs, so I can keep an eye on them and they have fewer plants to compete with. Left to their own devices, G. nivalis and its double cousin will give you carpets of pretty white flowers in February after a few years.

When buying snowdrops, it is always better to buy them in the green, i.e. when they are in leaf, not as dried bulbs. There are lots of nurseries advertising snowdrops in the green: be sure they come from a reputable source and are not being dug up in the wild! For some of the rarer gems have a look at the following nurseries:

Snowdrops and aconites
A great way to see Snowdrops en masse and spend a pleasant Sunday afternoon with the family is to visit one of the many gardens that open in February for the snowdrops. The easiest way to find out where there is one near you is to do an internet search for "where to see snowdrops". Here are some of my favourites and recommendations: 

Cambo gardens, Fife

Howick Hall, Northumbria

Galanthus 'Hill Poe'

Galanthus cutivar
Galanthus 'Desdamona'

We were away last weekend in Northumbria and went to see the Snowdrops at Howick Hall, which was near where we were staying. We had a pleasant walk there after a fun walk on the beach to tire out Bracken the dog. Their gardens and arboretum are carpeted with snow drops and their cream teas are excellent too. Howick Hall is also the home of the Earl Greys of tea fame. It was a great weekend, even the weather was good. We ate lots of fabulous food, the cottage was perfect and Bracken had a great time on the beach. Here are some shots of Bracken, the amazing fuzzy dog!

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