Snobbery, robbery and buried treasure

Suddenly, there is a snowdrop crisis; galanthomania is upon me Like diamonds, they make people at best greedy, at worst dishonest
Click to follow
The Independent Online
This is where galanthomania begins. I am stalking round the rose-garden, listening to the seasonal tinkle of plastic tags in the wind, observing the deer slots and the deep holes where the mice have been at the crocuses, when I turn a corner and - aha! -the first snowdrops are out.

They belong to a variety called Galanthus "limetree", so named after an avenue of limes under which we are supposed to believe that Rab Butler wrote the l944 Education Act. They were planted just under a year ago. I count the number of blooms. There are nine. I walk again around the garden and return to Galanthus "limetree". Still nine blooms. I return to the house and consult an old catalogue. I never buy things in nines. Last year, Galanthus "limetree" cost £8 for three bulbs. I would have bought six.

These snowdrops must like me. I really ought to think about acquiring more of these snowdrops... And now it begins to happen ... I should get more of these snowdrops. I should get many more of these snowdrops. How could I have let precious years go by without adding each season - maybe just a few, maybe quite a lot - to the snowdrop portfolio.

And now, suddenly out of nowhere, a major snowdrop crisis has blown up. Galanthomania is upon me. It seems to me that I have utterly neglected the primary task of gardening, which is to amass as many snowdrops as possible. How many is that?

I consult the Garden for this month. It carries an article by Michael Baron, holder of one of the national snowdrop collections. He says there may be as many as 600 varieties. He himself grows 250 different types, of which 25 are species and 100 named cultivars.

So he possesses 125 snowdrops that he has "not yet been confident enough to name", and he warns that the field of snowdrop classification is highly contentious. In fact, many experts refuse even to look at a snowdrop unless they know its pedigree. Taxonomy itself appears to be out of its depth here.

Galanthomania is an expression of the extremest form of gardeners' greed. One would not plant a valuable cultivar (valuable means £10 or £12 per bulb at last year's prices) near a public highway. Nor in too remote a spot. At Wisley they face a problem ofthe planting of quiet forest glades with rare varieties. These glades get robbed wholesale, dug up, presumably, by RHS members.

Snowdrops are like diamonds, they seem to carry an intense symbolic charge. They make people behave at best greedily, at worst dishonestly and ruthlessly. Little old ladies turn into positive Al Capones at the thought of a rare one.

Whether technology will mitigate this mania is hard to say. The valuable snowdrops are the ones that reproduce slowly by offsets. But there are now well-established ways of speeding up the process, by cutting each bulb into some 32 pieces - the "twin-scaling" technique. If twin-scaling works for all kinds of snowdrop, there seems little reason for the high prices. Someone somewhere will iron out the snowdrop expense problem.

What will happen to galanthomania then? Will the search for the exclusive plant switch to some other variety? Will the craze collapse, like tulipomania did, and leave the snowdrop breeders with valueless expensive stock?

The woman who sold me my first unusual snowdrops (G. plicatus, G. scharlockii and G. Dionysus) selected them on the grounds that they were the easiest. For the next three years I hardly paid them any attention until it suddenly became evident that, grownin a bed rather than in grass, they had multiplied sufficiently to merit division. Then I saw what a treasure I had - without thinking about it, I had been breeding diamonds.

Whether the twin-scaling technique (the bulbs are divided under sterile conditions, placed in bags of vermiculite and left in an airing cupboard for several weeks, by the end of which each piece will have produced a tiny bulblet) carries the same symbolic freight as growing them in leaf-mould a la nature, I don't know. Whether micropropagation has the same primitive allure as plain old propagation is - well - a question.

The way the gardeners of the old school talked - and talk - about subjects such as the rarer snowdrops has something to do with breeding and pedigree (whether literal or metaphorical): "this snowdrop was given me by that great man", "this one first occurred in that remarkable garden". And one supposes that the thrill people get from stealing from the great garden has a form of surreptitious snobbery attached to it - the association with the pedigree is as interesting as the acquisition of the plant itself.

Quite how a snowdrop expert can retain in his mind the distinctive features of even a hundred varieties is hard to imagine. The variables are colour and shape of leaf, size of plant, growing period and the markings on the inner and outer tepals. The sizeof plant varies between 3-10in. The leaves vary between blue-green and bright green, the growing period between October and April. Not, so far, an amazing set of variables.

The marking on the inner tepals are for the most part impossible to describe reliably. Some look like boomerangs, some like circumflexes, some like Zapata and some like Dali moustaches. Beyond these already unreliable distinctions lie further sub-distinctions. Some look like the circumflex of a calligrapher, others like the circumflex of a worn-out French teacher on a Friday afternoon, with a pile of marking to take home and a family to feed.

So the more precisely you try to describe these things, the more subjective you become, until you might as well be categorising a bunch of Rorschach blots. We may believe an expert when he says these species really are species, and that these particular varieties do constitute recognisable varieties. But even if we trust the experts, we must also trust our suppliers to furnish us with what we have trusted our experts to identify.

If I ask for Galanthus reginae-olgae s.sp. reginae-olgae, can I be sure that I will be given a genuine one, or might it not turn out to be Galanthus reginae-olgae s.sp. reginae-olgae corcyrensis, which wasn't what I asked for at all? This is the kind of ambush galanthomania leads you into.

So I return to the rose garden and check once again on my nine proud blooms of Galanthus "limetree" - still there, still nodding away 50 years after the Butler Education Act. At least, they don't contradict what the catalogue says. They don't look shriekingly wrong. Maybe I could order five more snowdrops - just to keep the obsession at bay.