Gardening: The white of spring

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The Independent Online
There is nothing more cheering, when a searing north-easterly is cutting you in half, than seeing snowdrops, writes Anna Pavord.

In our garden, aconites regularly beat snowdrops for the title of first flower of the year. But aconites have never acquired the same charisma. The Garboesque "I want to be alone" quality brings acolytes flocking in droves around snowdrops during January and February. Invitations to select snowdrop parties are "to die for" as my American friend says, but you're not likely to be asked unless you can recognise `John Gray' at 30 paces.

In fact, `John Gray' would be kids' stuff to the real experts. They could pick it out even at 60 paces. It is so handsome, the pedicel (the little, thread-like stem the flower hangs from) is so long and fine, the size and substance of the petals so outstanding, that they would get it at once. I have to admit that, even at one pace, I didn't know it from `Benhall Beauty' or `Mighty Atom', both of which, like `John Gray', are distributed from John Gray's Benhall garden.

I'm used now to the pitying looks that come my way from true snowdrop fanatics. It usually follows the question "But surely, you must grow `Sibbertoft'? and my confession that I don't. I've not been brave enough to reveal that the name, let alone the snowdrop itself, is unknown to me.

But I love being in the company of such experts. I love the comforting roll call of names, the gentle nudgings and disputes over correct pedigree. These are the kind of conversations that swirled round my head as a child, when packs of aunts and uncles would endlessly unravel and knit up again the antecedents of our Welsh neighbours. "No. You must mean the Powyses of Ty Hir, not the Powyses of The Neuadd. Now Ralph Powys's great grandmother ..." And then they'd be off, and nobody would remember to send me to bed.

So I had a happy time with Dr Ronald Mackenzie, whose Oxfordshire garden contains 70 different kinds of snowdrops. To his patients (he is a GP in a country practice) he may seem a perfectly sane man, but as he himself confesses, "Snowdrop people have got a reputation for being a bit strange." Well, there are certainly better times of the year to be on your hands and knees in the garden, but this is the only practical way to note the subtle differences in markings that distinguish one named snowdrop cultivar from another.

How did this madness start, I wondered? Even with his medical training, Dr Mackenzie couldn't explain. He was hooked on them even as a child in Yorkshire, he said. In a corner of his garden, he pointed out the clump of Galanthus elwesii that he had bought in Woolworths when he was a boy. "Doctors are often keen gardeners. I think it must have something to do with the scientific background. You're used to diagnosing."

His garden is made on a gentle, south-facing slope that stretches up behind his cottage. It is immaculately maintained, mulched all over with mushroom compost, each little outpost of snowdrops set off against an equally riveting clump of hellebores. He likes those, too. And alliums. And daphnes. And iris. And peonies. But one of the reasons he likes snowdrops so much is that they come when they are most needed - there's nothing quite so cheering as seeing flowers such as `Anglesey Abbey' bravely hanging on to their hats in the teeth of the gale.

Unlike the majority of snowdrops, which have leaves of a bluish-grey, `Anglesey Abbey' flowers among clumps of bright green foliage, which has the effect of making the flowers seem even more than usually pure. G. lutescens is another strange one, with yellowish rather than green markings on the white petals. "Not quite so good as `Flavescens'," said Dr Mackenzie judiciously, though like a fond parent, he loves all his snowdrops with a passion. "You know `Flavescens'? It came to me from Juliet Berkeley at Spetchley. Now her great-aunt was a sister of the famous Edwardian gardener, Ellen Willmott ..." And we were off again. All the great snowdrop gardens are related, it seems. A map of who had given what to whom would criss-cross Britain like a demented spider's web.

So what do they need to make them happy, these special snowdrops? If you are paying pounds 5-6 a bulb (more for the really rare ones) you want to know you have done all you can to encourage them. An alkaline soil is better than an acid one, says Dr Mackenzie, and a cool root run better than one that is baked dry. Give them a deep, rich soil in sun or partial shade, but don't plant them in deep shade. When they have clumped up, divide them every three years in February or March. Mulch them in November with leaf mould or mushroom compost. And get some long johns, so that when they flower, you can enjoy them in comfort.

Snowdrop courses

Dr Mackenzie will be one of the experts talking at the Snowdrop Study Day, to be held on 26 February (11am-3.30pm) at Anglesey Abbey, Lode, Cambridgeshire. His special subject will be propagating snowdrops by bulb scaling. Aaron Davies, who is working on a monograph of snowdrops, will explain the differences between snowdrop species and Richard Ayres, head gardener at the Abbey, will lead a tour of the extensive collection of snowdrops in the garden. Tickets cost pounds 18 (including lunch) and are available from Lavinia Nourse, Dullingham House, Dullingham, Newmarket CB8 9UP (01638 508186). Cheques should be made out to Cambridge Garden Courses and sent with a stamped, addressed envelope to the above address.

Snowdrop gardens to visit

Hodsock Priory's snowdrop spectacular opens today and runs until 8 March daily (10am-4pm) Admission pounds 2.50. Clearly marked trail through snowdrops, aconites and blue Anemone blanda. Hodsock Priory is at Blyth, near Worksop, Nottinghamshire S81 0TY (01909 591204).

The garden at Hatfield House, Hatfield, Hertfordshire is open tomorrow (11am-5pm) for a special snowdrop Sunday. Track them down on the bank behind the pond in the East Garden Admission pounds 3.10 (01707 262823).

More than 50 different kinds of snowdrop are to be found at Anglesey Abbey, the National Trust's garden at Lode, Cambridgeshire, open over the next three weekends (11am-4pm) Admission pounds 2.50 (01223 811200).

Belton House at Grantham, Lincs (which starred in the recent BBC version of Tom Jones) has a special snowdrop opening on Sunday 22 February (11am- 3pm) Admission pounds 5 per car (01476 566116).

Snowdrops are scattered through the period gardens of Chirk Castle, Chirk, Clwyd, originally a medieval Marcher fortress. Special openings over the next three weekends (12pm-4pm) Admission pounds 1 (01691 777701).

At Cliveden, Taplow, Maidenhead, Bucks, the head gardener, Philip Cotton, will lead a guided walk, "The Garden in Winter", on 15 February, starting at 11am (01494 522234).

The woodland garden surrounding Lacock Abbey, Lacock, near Chippenham, Wiltshire is carpeted with snowdrops, and there are openings next weekend (14-15 February, 2pm-5pm) and also on 21-22 February (2pm-5pm) Admission pounds 1.80 (01249 730459).

Snowdrop shows

Dr Mackenzie will join Rupert Golby in exhibiting some of his snowdrops at the Royal Horticultural Society's show on 17 February (11am-7pm, admission pounds 5) and 18 February (10am-5pm, admission pounds 3). The show will take place at the RHS Hall, Greycoat Street, Westminster, London SW1.

Snowdrop sales

All snowdrops are best planted "in the green" at the end of March, rather than as dried bulbs in October. Named varieties are available from Avon Bulbs, Burnt House Farm, Mid-Lambrook, South Petherton, Somerset TA13 5HE (01460 242177; four second-class stamps for catalogue), Louise Vockins at Foxgrove Plants, Foxgrove, Enborne, near Newbury, Berkshire RG14 6RE (01635 40554; send pounds 1 for catalogue); John Morley, North Green Only, Stoven, Beccles, Suffolk NEAR34 8DG (six first-class stamps for catalogue), or the Snowdrop Company, Barn Cottage, Shilton, Oxfordshire (four second- class stamps for catalogue). If you are a beginner in this game, start with readily available snowdrops such as `Sam Arnott', `Atkinsii' and `Magnet'.