The first snowdrop fanatic I ever met was the Reverend Blakeway-Phillips who, round about this time of the year, used to turn up at the Royal Horticultural Society's show in London with a magnificent selection of snowdrops which he arranged in Bovril jars. This was in no way an affectation. The jars were the right size and shape and he rightly thought the dark glass set off the white flowers perfectly.
Recently, we met again at a literary festival where I was speaking and we marvelled at the extraordinary price rare snowdrops can now command – £100 a bulb for some new permutation of green spots on white petals. Blakeway-Phillips though, was way ahead of the game. Ten years before the present mania started, he already had 70 different snowdrops growing in his rectory garden, a collection that represented most of what was around in the snowdrop world at that time.
Now, at least 200 kinds are listed in The Plant Finder (RHS £15.99). More than 40 of these have been introduced within the last year. But February is a chilly month to be down on your hands and knees counting green spots. In the end, how many of these variations are truly distinct? Earliness into flower is certainly useful, as is lateness, because either trait spreads the time available for gardeners to enjoy the gorgeous sight of snowdrops easing open their petals into the sunlight. With us, Galanthus 'Atkinsii' is always the earliest snowdrop to open up, and 'Baxendale's Late' the last.
Flowers can be single or double and although I've always thought single-flowered snowdrops more elegant than doubles, I'm delighted that the double-flowered 'Hill Poe' has settled in our garden. But that's because it was given to us by our neighbour, John Poe, in whose Irish home the flower was first found. His death shortly afterwards makes me doubly glad to have his snowdrop blooming under the hart's tongue ferns on our bank.
Yellow markings (where you more normally find green) are highly prized by snowdrop fanatics and 'Wendy's Gold', first spotted at Wandelbury Ring in the Seventies, is perhaps the best known. 'Ecusson d'Or', discovered by Mark Brown in 2002, has yellow tips to both inner and outer petals. "The Holy Grail of snowdropping," says Alan Street of Avon Bulbs nursery, which is selling the few bulbs they have available at £50 each.
As the number of different snowdrops on offer has increased, so has the number of gardens opening at this time of year to show them off. Some owners, such as Cliff and Joan Curtis of 21 Chapel Street, Hacconby, are collectors, and specialise in the unusual and rare. Others, such as Celia and Dave Hargrave at Trench Hill in Gloucestershire, have planted snowdrops to flower en masse under the trees and shrubs of their three-acre country garden.
Celia Hargrave ordered her first 1,000 snowdrop bulbs the year they moved into their house, and reckons she has planted another 20,000 since. When I wandered round the garden with her in January, their sheathed snouts were already poking through under hedges, in drifts under the beech trees and between vast clumps of pink-flowered Cyclamen coum. Coum-envy is probably not a disease our GP would recognise, but I felt distinctly sick with it, looking at the gorgeously-marked leaves and deep magenta flowers of the Trench Hill cyclamen. I've never seen better ones.
Planting 20,000 snowdrops makes its mark on your knees, but the bulbs evidently love the stoney limestone brash of the Hargraves' garden. In the 18 years since they first arrived, the snowdrops have spread in wonderful thick drifts through spring borders and are now appearing in all kinds of places where Mrs Hargrave never put them.
The house sits on the south-facing side of a hill overlooking the needle-thin spire of Painswick church on the right and the squatter tower of Sheepscombe on the left. From borders of hellebores, ferns and snowdrops made among the beech trees at the top of the slope, the garden runs gently down through drifts of grasses and shrubs planted for their foliage, to end in a big curving pond at the bottom of the plot, where the new growth of two pollarded willows burns as bright as fire against the sky.
From the pond, paths lead into an intricate series of plantings to the side of the house, where early muscari, iris and narcissus, as well as snowdrops, benefit from the shelter of the trees. But anyone suffering as I was from cyclamen- (and snowdrop-) envy should make their way to the working area by the Hargraves' garage and note the seven compost bins ranged against the wall. Every inch of this garden is mulched every year with the Hargraves' own compost. Since they put such a vast amount of effort into their plot, it's scarcely surprising their plants sing out so happily.
The garden at Trench Hill, Sheepscombe, Glos GL6 6TZ is open (11am-5pm) tomorrow and 19 February. For more details, call 01452 814306
Snowdrop gardens to visit
Today Coombegate Cottage, St Ives, Cornwall PL14 3LZ (11am-4pm; admission £3); Penrhyn Castle, Bangor, Gwynedd LL57 4HN (11am-3pm; admission £3)
Tomorrow Sherwood, Newton St Cyres, Exeter, Devon EX5 5BT (2-5pm; admission £4)
Tue 14 Feb Pembury House, Ditchling Rd, Clayton, nr Hassocks, Sussex BN6 9PH (11am-4pm; admission £4)
Thur 16 Feb Cherubeer Gardens, Dolton, Devon EX19 8PP (2-5pm; admission £4)
Sat 18 Feb Lacock Abbey Gardens, Chippenham, Wilts SN15 2LG (11am-4pm; admission £5)
Sun 19 Feb Higher Denham Gardens, Higher Denham, Bucks UB9 5EA (2-4.30pm; admission £4)
Mon 20 Feb Boscombe Village Gardens, Boscombe, Wilts SP4 0AB (11am-4pm; admission £4.50)
Wed 22 Feb Austwick Hall, Town Head Lane, Austwick, nr Settle, Yorks LA2 8BS (12-5pm; admission £3.50)
Thur 23 Feb Little Court, Crawley, nr Winchester, Hants SO21 2PU (2-5.30pm; admission £3)
Sat 25 Feb Pikes Cottage, Madford, Hemyock, Devon EX15 3QZ (1-5pm; admission £3.50)
Sun 26 Feb Magnolia House, Grange Drive Wooburn, Wooburn Green, Bucks HP10 0QD (11am-2pm; admission £3.50)
Wed 29 Feb Yew Tree Cottage, Penshurst, Kent TN11 8AD (12-5pm; admission £2)
For full details of the Scottish Snowdrop Festival (to 18 March) go to visitscotland.com/surprisesnowdrop