Gardening: The Great White Winter Hope

One delicate and beautiful little flower blooms away throughout the cold months, charming all those who see it pushing up through the frost. Nigel Colborn adores the snowdrop
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The Independent Culture
IF YOU want to impress the Joneses, there's a cheaper way than leaving a Porsche outside your front door. You can elicit just as many wistful glances with something as simple as a bunch of snowdrops. Your timing has to be right, of course. Arrange a miniature vase with these exquisite milky blooms in February, and they'll be taken for granted. But grace the dining table with snowdrops picked from your garden in early October, and you will achieve the ultimate dinner-party swank. Your gardening guests will be as enviously green as the snowdrops' inner petals, and while they exclaim with delight and admiration, you can let slip that these are mere- ly the very first of your collection to come into flower, and that you will have one or another of your 74 snowdrop varieties in bloom from then right through until March.

Actually, 74 is a conservative figure. At the Royal Horticultural Society's Wisley Gardens, the public can enjoy looking at 14 true wild species, from which 126 garden cultivars are derived. At the last count, my own collection ran only to a paltry 21 different kinds, but I go for quantity as well as quality. Seeing a great white drift of the bog-standard snowdrop gives more pleasure, after all, than trying vainly to spot the difference between two forms of a flower which are both white with little green bits. One needs a magnifying glass (and to be more than a little anorakish) to be able to differentiate between some of the named varieties.

But if you run up against a committed galanthophile, expect to become embroiled in their obsessive mania. Suggest that snowdrops are all a bit similar and the galanthophile will sit you down and take you through the minute differences. Within minutes, he will have you believe that the common Galanthus nivalis of our north-European woodlands is as completely different from its Crimean relative Galanthus plicatus as a sunflower is from a leek.

Genuinely wild snowdrops grow in open woodland from Switzerland eastwards, as far as Lebanon and north-west Iran. The common species Galanthus nivalis is most familiar to us, a plant so long in cultivation that its wild origins are obscure. Though widespread, it is probably not a native of western Europe at all but had its origins in Austria or Yugoslavia. Theophrastus men-tions it growing on Mount Hymettos around 300BC, and it came to Britain with the Romans along with such other continental undesirables as stinging nettles. Fifteenth- century monks were known to replace images of the Blessed Virgin with snowdrops as a symbol of purification at Candlemas.

As far as modern gardening is concerned, the snowdrop must be secure on anyone's list of the 10 most essential plants. Anything that flowers, undeterred by the filthiest weather, from Christmas through to mid-Lent has to be worthwhile, and when you consider the simple beauty of those three stark white outer petals which cloak the green-tinged inner ones, you realise that a garden without snowdrops is truly deficient. If the buds are picked and brought indoors, the more subtle elements of their beauty unfold. The fragrance is sweet, like honey, but with a dash of musk in its undertones. The green petal markings vary according to species, from bold splashes to faint, V-shaped markings at their very tips. Some, like Galanthus nivalis `Lady Elphinstone', have yellowish marks instead, but in my opinion look sickly, rather than beautiful.

The best time to buy and to plant snowdrops is when they are flowering or as soon as the flowers have faded. They dislike drying up, so planting them at this time, while they are still growing, minimises the shock of being uprooted and relocated. Most good bulb-sellers have them on offer "in the green" from late January to the end of February - that is, with green leaves attached, still growing rather than dormant. The dry bulbs on sale in the autumn will probably survive, but are better avoided.

You should plant snowdrops deeply enough to cover the white part of the stem. Handle them carefully to avoid damaging the delicate foliage. Once planted, though, you can neglect them completely. The tops will die off naturally within a couple of weeks. And if you dig them up by mistake later, don't worry - just shove the hardy little bulbs back in.

Apart from the autumn species Galanthus reginae-olgae, the great majority of snowdrops flower from January to late February. Their blooming date depends very much on the season. If you want to play safe, select the plants listed in my Who's Who of Snowdrops (below) and you will have the longest possible flowering season.

Common snowdrops are easy to find in garden centres, but if you want collectable, named varieties then you will need to root out a specialist. Broadleigh Gardens, based in Taunton in Somerset, sells all kinds of small bulbs and with its long experience of efficient mail-order is really no further away than the postman. Christine Skelmersdale, Broadleigh's owner, has been a snowdrop expert for 30 years, and is forthright in her opinions: "A lot of the differences are only in the eye of the obsessive beholder," she says. "There are only four main leaf types and per-haps 20 varieties that are distinct enough to look different at a glance."

There is variety in the shape of snowdrop leaves, from the narrow, strap- like foliage of the common Galanthus nivalis to the bold, broad, outwardly curling leaves of the eastern species G plicatus. These will expand with age and so make the plant as valuable for its foliage as for its flower. The second most common species in British gardens is the Turkish G elwesii, which has the advantages of earlier flowering, larger blooms and bold, handsome leaves which overlap, rather than curling outwards.

Christine Skelmersdale reveals herself to be unashamedly sizeist when it comes to the flowers themselves. "These collectors' snowdrops are quite a price," I suggest. "Oh yes," she agrees, "but if your garden is small, then it's far better to buy just two bulbs with really big flowers than a hundred little ones for the same price."

But the cost of collectors' snowdrops can be daunting. Last year, one supplier was offering a new hybrid, Galanthus `Colesbourne', at pounds 20 for a single bulb. In the same list you could buy `John Gray', an outstanding early snowdrop with long, elegant stems for pounds 9, and the yellow-tinged G nivalis `Sandersii' was strictly rationed to one bulb per order, like a Grand Cru claret. As if one needed restraining - the same money (pounds 15 each) would buy a mature cherry tree!

Broadleigh's list is more modestly priced and expands each season. "We'll be offering 26 varieties in 1999," says Christine Skelmersdale, "all absolutely stunning." The dearest on her current list is G gracilis, a delicate Greek species with narrow, twisted foliage, at pounds 6 per bulb. Biggest (and in my view one of the best) is Galanthus `S Arnott', a veritable prize-fighter of a snowdrop whose flowers can grow up to a foot high and whose fragrant flowers are half as big again as any other known variety. What's more, each bulb often produces a second, smaller flower after the first has faded, which stretches the season from late January to late February. Broadleigh charges pounds 3.60 per bulb for `S Arnott' but all you need is one since, if properly cared for, they will double their number of flowers year on year until the plants become congested.

And which other good varieties would Christine Skelmersdale recommend to us? "`Magnet'," she says without hesitation. "The flowers behave like ballerinas. They have these long, slender flower stems and if the sun comes out, they lift their outer petals like a ballerina lifting her skirt, and dance in the breeze." And in my cold Lincolnshire garden, G `Atkinsii' has been one of the fastest to bulk up, and is a sure-fire conversation- stopper with its elongated flowers produced so early in the snowdrop season. For later flowering - mid-February onwards - there's `Straffan', and if you want a perfectly formed double flower, try `Ophelia', whose inner petals are tightly arranged to form a lovely green-and-white rosette.

Snowdrops prefer gentle shade to hot sun, and dislike being dried out at the roots. That is why your chances of success are far greater if you buy plants that are growing, or that have just been lifted, rather than dry bulbs. Furthermore, there is still an illegal trade in snowdrop bulbs raided from the wild, mainly from Turkey, and brought into Holland from where they enter the nursery business - rather like laundering money. Buying snowdrops in the green ensures that your plants have a legitimate provenance. Named cultivars, of course, have never been in the wild, and so purchasing them represents no threat to any wild habitat.

If your soil is not too dry, snowdrops should multiply for you with gusto. They love being naturalised in grass, especially in gentle shade, and can be used to precede daffodils or narcissii. After several years, bulbs will have multiplied to such an extent that the clumps will have become congested. If dug up as soon as the flowers begin to fade and divided into individual bulbs which are replanted about 9cm (4in) deep, your snowdrop population will expand with satisfying rapidity. Otherwise, snowdrops thrive on neglect, popping up with faithful regularity and disappearing modestly when flowering is done.

By the time they have faded, the daffodils are budding and the season is on the move. But come October, with its lengthening nights and colder days, thoughts of impending winter are bound to return. You'll need cheering up, and seeing Galanthus reginae-olgae emerging from the leafy litter of autumn will do the trick. This species (named after Queen Olga of Greece) is more drought-tolerant than other snowdrop, and thrives in my dry Mediterranean gravel garden. The flowers always take me by surprise, appearing so out of kilter with the season. How perfect they are, especially for impressing the more superior of one's gardening friends.

A WHO'S WHO OF SNOWDROPS

SIX OF THE BEST FOR THE `AVANT GARDEN'

Galanthus elwesii

A Crimean species which is often in bloom by Boxing Day. The leaves and flowers are larger than average, with bigger green flashes. `Merlin' has inner petals that are coloured almost entirely deep green

Galanthus ikariae Latifolius group

The broad leaves are bottle green rather than the more usual blue-green, which gives a harder contrast against the white blooms

Galanthus `S Arnott'

Possibly the biggest snowdrop flower: stems grown up to 26cm (12in) high and are topped by extra-large and fragrant blooms Galanthus plicatus `Warham'

A superb form brought back from the Crimea after the war. Large, but more drought-tolerant than most snowdrops Galanthus nivalis Scharlockii group

Green dabs on outer petals as well as inner. Very long split spathes atop the flowers give the appearance of pricked-up rabbit ears

Galanthus reginae-olgae

Autumn-blooming: flowers emerge (without foliage) from September to December

WHERE TO SEE AND BUY SNOWDROPS

Royal Horticultural Show Flower Shows, Vincent Square, London SW1

Show dates: 16 & 17 February.

Hodsock Priory, Blyth, Nottinghamshire (off B6045), open daily during flowering which depends on the season, so check first by telephoning 01909 591204.

Painswick Rococo Garden, Painswick, Gloucestershire (off B4073), snowdrops in a woodland setting.

RECOMMENDED NURSERY

Broadleigh Gardens, Bishops Hull, Taunton, Somerset TA4 1AE

Send two first class stamps to the above address for a catalogue.

Avon Bulbs, Burnt House Farm, Mid-Lambrook, South Petherton, Somerset TA 13 5HE (01460 242177).

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