I picked the first snowdrops from our garden on Boxing Day, which, though cold, was not snowy. I was so buoyed up by the flowers sitting on the kitchen table, with ivy leaves and catkins, I set out on a mammoth walk, which kept me outside from nine until four, when the light was just beginning to drift out of our valley. There was a vague thought in the back of my mind that I might find more snowdrops in the woods around us. There weren't any then, but it didn't matter. They've caught up now.
'Atkinsii' is a very vigorous, early snowdrop, the foliage glaucous like that of the wild snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis, but bigger and broader. This was the Edwardian gardener, EA Bowles's favourite snowdrop and it is mine too, partly because it comes so early, partly because it builds up into lavish displays with very little effort. The flowers are enormous, at least 5cm (2in) across, with outer sepals held almost horizontal. Inside, the bell is white, with a broad inverted horseshoe marked in green. Odd petals fly away occasionally to break the symmetry and in some seasons flowers carry four outer petals instead of three.
Ours grow in patches of ivy, but this bold snowdrop looks equally good with dark hellebores or among the glorious marbled leaves of Arum italicum 'Pictum' which is at its best now. It is thought to be a cross between G. nivalis and G. plicatus and was named by the great snowdrop grower James Allen of Shepton Mallet, Somerset, after another snowdrop maniac, James Atkins of Painswick in Gloucestershire, who had got it from a friend in the 1860s.
In a garden, it's the one I would most highly recommend, because it shows up so well and increases so fast. But in a semi-wild setting, the smaller G. nivalis is more appropriate. It doesn't try to show off, though in its quiet way it produces, at this time of the year, scenes that are as breathtaking as anything you'll see for the whole of the rest of the year.
Part of the appeal comes from the fact that all gardeners are now suffering from acute cabin fever. It's been a magnificent but tough winter. We haven't been able to get out as much as we are used to doing. We're longing for signs that the things we most care about are going to be with us again. Snowdrops give us what we need.
At Cambo, near St Andrews in Scotland, a spectacular snowdrop walk follows the burn that charges from the lodge gates, along beside the drive, through the middle of the walled garden and all the way down the wooded valley to the North Sea. I wandered through it at dusk, this time last year, when the snowdrops glowed almost luminescently from the undergrowth and rooks clattered in to roost overhead. This year, Catherine Erskine at Cambo has arranged an even more dramatic experience – 'Snowdrops by Starlight', with special lighting set up through the 70 acres of woodland.
Cambo's snowdrops have been quietly building up in the woods for hundreds of years and you could not wish for a better setting. In winter, the burn is full and noisy, crashing down through rocks, moss, hart's tongue ferns and treetrunks. The noise it makes is fabulous, filling the mind and soothing it. Alongside are the avalanches of snowdrops, ebbing and flowing through the valley, singles and doubles, pushing through leafmould and ivy, transforming the gaunt winter landscape into a place so beautiful you almost stop breathing.
And for me, that's the point of snowdrops – that you should see them en masse. Not everyone thinks the same, which is why snowdrop collecting has become such a mania – nearly 200 different kinds are now listed in The Plant Finder with rare cultivars fetching as much as £80 a bulb. There are rarities too at Cambo, if that's what you're looking for, planted out in beds around the lawn close to the house. We stayed the night (they do excellent B&B) so there was time for both: a very leisurely wander in the garden one day and an even longer walk down through the woods the next.
Scotland has been rather quicker than England to cash in on winter snowdrop spectaculars. For a full list of nearly 30 Scottish gardens which will be showing off their snowdrops this month, get hold of Gardens of Scotland 2010 (£5.50), published by Scotland's Garden Scheme.
Snowdrop gardens to visit this month
Cambo Estate Kingsbarns, St Andrews, Fife, daily (10am-5pm), £4; 01333 450313. 'Snowdrops by Starlight', Thur-Mon (6-9pm) until 28 Feb, £6.50-£8.50; 01334 475000
Bents Green 10 Pilmuir Rd West, Forres, Mon to 14 March (10am-4pm), £3; 01309 674634
Blair Castle Gardens Blair Atholl, Tue & Sat to 23 Mar, Sun 14 Mar (9.30am-2.30pm), free; 01796 481207
Blairquhan Straiton, Maybole, Ayrshire, 21 Feb (12-4pm), £6
Castle Kennedy & Gardens Stranraer, Wigtownshire, Sat-Sun (10am-5pm) in Feb & Mar, £4; 01581 400225
Drumelzier Place Broughton, Peebleshire, 21 Feb (1-4pm), £3
Ecclesgreig Castle St Cyrus, Kincardineshire, 28 Feb (1-4pm), £3
Gagie House Duntrune, by Dundee, Angus, daily until 14 Mar (10am-5pm), £4; 01382 380207
Gargunnock House Gargunnock, Stirlingshire, Wed & Sun (11am-4pm) until 11 Mar, £2; 01786 860392
Summerdale House Nook, Nr Lupton, Cumbria, 28 Feb (11am-5pm), £3.50; 015395 67210
Hanham Court Hanham Abbots, Bristol, today to Mon, 19-22 Feb (11.30am-4.30pm), £6.50
Coombegate Cottage St Ive, Cornwall, tomorrow (1-4pm), £2.50
Little Cumbre 145 Pennsylvania Rd, Exeter, Devon, Sun & 21 Feb (12-3.30pm), £3; 01392 258315
Trench Hill Sheepscombe, Glos, tomorrow (11am-4pm), £3; 01452 814306
Penrhyn Castle Bangor, Gwynedd, today (11am-4pm), £1.50; 01248 353084
Ivy Croft Ivington Green, Leominster, 18 & 25 Feb (2-5.30pm), £3; 01568 720344
Lacock Abbey Chippenham, Wilts, today & tomorrow, 20-21 Feb (11am-4pm), £3; 01249 730459
Bramdean House Bramdean, Hants, tomorrow (2-5pm), £3.50; 01962 771214
Kings Arms Garden Ampthill, Beds, 28 Feb (2.30-5pm), £2; 01525 755648
Magnolia House Grange Drive, Wooburn, Bucks, 21 Feb (11am-3pm), £2.50; 01628 525818
Mere House Mereworth, Kent, tom (2-5.30pm), £3
Gatton Park Rocky Lane, Merstham, Surrey, tomorrow & Weds (12-4pm), £3.50; 01737 649068
Pembury House Ditchling Rd, Clayton, nr Hassocks, Sussex, this Tue-Thur, £3.50; 01273 842805
Green Island Park Road, Ardleigh, Essex, 21 Feb (10am-5pm), £4; 01206 230455
21 Chapel St Hacconby, Bourne, Lincs, 27-28 Feb (11am-5pm), £2; 01778 570314
The Beeches The Avenue, Milton, Tuxford, Newark, Notts, 28 Feb (11am-4pm), £3; 01777 870828
Gable House Halesworth Rd, Redisham, Suffolk, 21 Feb (11am-4.30pm), £3; 01502 575298