GARDENING / That little drop of magic: Now is the time to look for snowdrops. Michael Leapman visits an abbey that boasts a glorious display of 18 varieties

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IF GARDENERS were not congenital optimists we should soon find a less frustrating hobby. Our capacity to look on the bright side is nowhere better shown than in our attitude to snowdrops. Lyrically, we hail these coy and diminutive flowers as harbingers of spring, whereas in truth we know they are a sign that the winter still has two dreadful months to run.

Some are not taken in. In his 1909 book, In a Yorkshire Garden, Reginald Farrer wrote: 'The snowdrop gives me chilblains, only to look at it - and the very sight of a snowdrop will always make me hurry to the fireside. Was there ever such an icy, inhuman, bloodless flower, crystallised winter in three gleaming petals and a green-flecked cup?'

Fashions change, and nowadays there is a taste for white and restrained flowers at all times of the year. That is why thousands of us will don our scarves, gloves and gumboots over the next few weeks to look at the snowdrops in our larger public gardens. For while we may grow them in isolated groups at home, they are at their most dramatic in expansive drifts, often alongside swathes of yellow winter aconites for contrast.

Some gardens that close for most of the winter open briefly in February and March for dedicated snowdrop-watching. One of the most glorious displays can be seen next month at Anglesey Abbey, near Cambridge, which boasts 18 varieties, some extremely rare and one named after the head gardener, Richard Ayres.

Eighteen varieties? But surely a snowdrop is a snowdrop, a simple white bell-like flower arching gracefully from its stem? True, but while there is little variation in the basic colour and shape, there are all sorts of individual attributes - the double or single flower, the colour of the leaves, the extent of the greenish tint on the petals that Farrer found so distasteful.

The Plant Finder lists 52 varieties commercially available, and that does not include some of the rarer ones at Anglesey. Ayres thinks there may be close to 100 kinds extant in Britain.

'The real experts can see tiny differences that even I wouldn't notice,' he said, as we trudged through the soggy abbey gardens. But he does recognise the variety named after him, and he proudly showed me a clump under a tree in the northern part of the garden. They are some six inches tall with double flowers and an unusual amount of green flecking on the petals that distinguishes them from a more common double variety, flore pleno.

The official name of the snowdrop is galanthus, from the Greek gala, meaning milk, and anthos, flower. According to legend, they were introduced into Britain by medieval monks, who found them on the wayside as they journeyed home from visits to Rome. This would explain why they are often found in churchyards and near former religious houses, such as Anglesey Abbey, which was founded by Henry I in 1135. The snowdrop's connection with graveyards gave rise to the superstition that it was unlucky. Yet it also has its dedicated enthusiasts, known as galanthophiles.

Some of the species are so rare that Ayres believes they may have been introduced by a botanist - and he notes that the Rev John Hailstone, who moved into the house in 1861, had a botanist as a brother. When the first Lord Fairhaven, creator of today's garden, arrived at the abbey in 1926 (three years before he was ennobled), the bulk of the snowdrops were in an area now known as Snowdrop Valley, which had clearly been used at some period as a dump. Ayres's theory is that an earlier owner dug them up to make way for new planting in some other part of the garden, and discarded them.

Among the species found there was lagodechianus, which comes from Russia and has a distinctive green leaf, in contrast to the bluey-green of most others, including the common nivalis. A variant of lagodechianus, first identified in Snowdrop Valley, bears the name Anglesey Abbey.

By digging up plants from the valley and spreading them to other parts of the estate, Richard Ayres and his father, Noel, who was head gardener before him, have created a magnificent display. 'You continually need to be moving snowdrops and the time to move them is when they are in flower,' he says. 'They don't do so well if you plant them as dry bulbs. Every year I try to find a new place to plant them but we're running out of ideal areas. They like to be in semi-shade.' They do well in most soils and enjoy the rich loam of the Cambridgeshire fenland. Generally they need no feeding.

Abbey visitors this year will see them in an unusual setting. In an area near the Lode river, which flows through the grounds, are low-lying paths between 5ft banks where snowdrops abound beneath the trees. This year the paths are flooded; Ayres sees no prospect of the water subsiding before the snowdrop weekends, so visitors will have to walk on top of the banks. 'I like seeing the water,' he says. 'It would have been like that when the monks were here because the water table was much higher then. They kept carp in ponds there.'

He can remember only three or four occasions when the water has risen this high since he began working at the abbey as a garden boy in 1960, six years before the National Trust inherited the property on the death of the first Lord Fairhaven. Ayres took over from his father as head gardener on Boxing Day in 1973 and he hopes his son Christopher, now also working in the garden, will continue the family tradition.

If visiting the abbey, try to fit in the Cambridge University Botanic Garden six miles away in the city (entrance on Bateman Street; open daily except Monday 10am-4pm; weekend admission charge pounds 1.50). Its winter garden is world famous, with brilliant red-stemmed dogwood, bright white rubus, heathers, hellebores and viburnums. A highlight is a marvellous witch-hazel, hamamelis Jelena, with proliferating orange/

bronze blossoms. And there are rare snowdrops in the alpine house - one, Wendy's Gold, with a golden base to the flower.

The bulb specialist Jacques Amand, tel: 081-954 8138, offers five varieties of snowdrop, delivered in leaf, in his new catalogue.


Anglesey Abbey, Lode, Nr Cambridge, tel: 0223 811200. Open for snowdrop weekends on 12/13 and 19/20 February, noon-4pm. Admission pounds 3, National Trust members pounds 1.50.

Other National Trust properties also have good snowdrop displays. Most charge for admission but are free to NT members. They include:

WEST: Glendurgan, Mawnan Smith, nr Falmouth; open from 1 March, Tuesday-Saturday, 10.30am-5.30pm.

Coloton Fishacre, Kingswear, Dartmouth; open Sundays 2pm-5pm during March.

Killerton, Broad Clyst, Exeter; open daily 11am-dusk.

Lacock Abbey, nr Chippenham; open 20 and 27 February and 6 March, from 1pm-5pm. Stourhead, nr Warminster; open daily 8am-dusk.

Dunster Castle, nr Minehead, open daily from 1 February, 11am-4pm.

Penrhyn Castle, Bangor; open 1 March (St David's Day), 10am-5pm.

MIDLANDS: The Weir, Swainshill, nr Hereford; open from 16 February, Wednesday to Sunday, 11am-dusk.

Attingham Park, Shrewsbury; open daily dawn to dusk.

Ickworth, Horringer, nr Bury St Edmunds; open daily dawn to dusk.

SOUTH EAST: Sheffield Park Garden, nr Uckfield; open weekends in March, 11am-4pm.

Nymans Gardens, Handcross, nr Haywards Heath; open weekends in March, 11am-dusk.

Polesden Lacey, nr Dorking; open daily, 11am-dusk.

NORTH: Fountains Abbey and Studley Royal, Ripon; open daily 10am-5pm.

NORTHERN IRELAND: Rowallane Garden, Saintfield, Ballynahinch; open weekdays 10.30am-5pm.

Castle Ward, Strangford, Downpatrick; open daily, dawn-dusk.

(Photographs omitted)