Thursday, 17 January 2013
Beat the winter gloom with a dazzling planting of snowdrops, says our columnist
Written by Sarah Langton-LocktonElegant, delicate-looking but easy to grow, snowdrops bring joy into the garden in late winter when the ravages of harsh weather have brought spirits low. Best grown in quantity, they thrive in parks and gardens where they are left to grow undisturbed. They will also flourish at the foot of shrubs and trees and in all sorts of messy corners of the garden.
The common snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis, is a woodland species found across Europe. It is not thought to be a British native, although it is happy here, nor is it known when it was introduced, although it was probably the 16th century, or by whom. Galanthus nivalis features in the plant lists of the nurserymen and plant hunters, the John Tradescants, father and son, in 1634 and 1656, as does Galanthus plicatus.
Galanthus plicatus is sometimes called the Crimean snowdrop because British soldiers serving in the Crimean War in the 1850s were struck by the snowdrops carpeting the battlefields after harsh winters, and brought bulbs home. G. plicatus is a robust plant with broader foliage than the common snowdrop. It has produced excellent hybrid offspring, including one I grow, G. ‘S. Arnott’, a vigorous plant with large white flowers that have an inverted V-shaped green mark at the tip of each inner tepal. The flowers have a honey scent.
There are in total 20 species of snowdrops and hundreds of varieties, some rare and sought after by a growing band of impassioned fanciers, possessed by galanthophilia, the snowdrop equivalent of tulip mania. The highest price paid by a galanthophile so far has been £725.10 for a single bulb of Galanthus woronowii ‘Elizabeth Harrison’.
Although he is quoted as dismissing snowdrop fanatics as ‘galanthobores’, the great plantsman Christopher Lloyd did concede in The Adventurous Gardener that ‘The more species and varieties you grow, the more you come to appreciate their finer details and differences…’
An engaging new book, Snowdrops, by the German snowdrop expert Gunter Waldorf, has a gallery of gorgeous images of nearly 300 snowdrop varieties and a wealth of information for experienced and aspiring galanthophiles. The author advises planting the bulbs at least 5cm/2in apart, three times the depth of the bulb in a planting hole with sandy soil at its base mixed with stone chippings. He takes the traditional view that bulbs should be planted ‘in the green’, ie, while they are in growth and during or just after flowering. The RHS now suggests (see The Garden, January 2013) that lifting bulbs ‘in the green’ can cause early dormancy and weakens bulbs. It advises buying container-grown plants, provided they have not been in their pots too long, or buying from specialist nurseries who despatch bulbs in summer, damp-packed to ensure they do not dry out.
Many fine gardens have spectacular plantings of snowdrops. My own joint best are Benington Lordship near Stevenage and Chelsea Physic Garden in London. At the former, the gardens, which open only selectively for visitors, are renowned for the carpets of naturalised snowdrops that surround the house and the romantic fragment of a Norman castle and thrive in its moat. Open daily from 2 to 24 February, visit www.beningtonlordship.co.uk
Chelsea Physic Garden has a special nine-day opening from 2 to 10 February, with a Snowdrop Trail that includes unusual cultivars, 10,000 newly planted snowdrops in the wood, a Snowdrop Theatre for close inspection of ‘finer details and differences’, expert tours, talks and workshops, and lunches from the Tangerine Dream Café. Details from www.chelseaphysicgarden.co.uk
Snowdrops by Gunter Waldorf is published by Frances Lincoln, priced £14.99: www.franceslincoln.com
Jobs to do this week
Put feed out for the birds, but remove any netting from fat balls, peanuts or seeds – according to the RSPB it’s highly dangerous and can trap feet and beaks.
If you have a shredder, recycle your Christmas tree for mulch.
Inspect stored dahlia tubers for rot or drying out; if you haven’t lifted them, protect them from frost with plenty of mulch.
For very early crops, start off lettuces on the windowsill, grow on in the greenhouse and plant out in February.
Keep indoor cyclamen cool and well lit; yellowing leaves may be a sign of overwatering.
Plant of the week
Helleborus x hybridus ‘Red Lady’ looks glorious planted with snowdrops. Upright stems bearing up to five single red flowers appear above the evergreen foliage in late winter. Keep away from toddlers – it’s harmful if eaten and the sap is a skin irritant. 5cm plug plant, £6.99; 3 for £12.99: www.crocus.co.uk