Steffie Shields celebrates the reawakening of gardens as snowdrops begin to emerge.
I am writing this piece at the turn of 2023 while visiting family in Florida. And yes, it is somehow surreal to be dreaming about snowdrops when shaded by graceful palm trees and surrounded by a plethora of vermillion bougainvillea blossom and other exotics, with temperatures nudging 80 degrees fast melting the ice in my glass. However, I do love a challenge!
Coincidentally, on a gentle stroll around my daughter’s neighbourhood, I noticed communities of tiny white, star-shaped flowers, some tinged pink or lilac, sprinkling the lawns. ‘Florida snow’, actually a Brazilian pusley, a perennial wildflower, scientifically called Richardia brasiliensis, certainly resembles a dusting of snow over clover and grass.
The best aspect of any holiday, no matter how special, is going home! Once in the front door, I plan to layer up with sweaters and scarves, tug on boots, and hopefully banish any jet-lag by diving straight outside!
After dazzling, bright sunshine and heat-related lethargy, any signs of my monotone grey-green Lincolnshire garden waking up will jump-start my recharged batteries!
Let’s celebrate every sign of life. Treasure drifts of heart-melting snowdrops spilling out of the ground under ghostly beech and silver birch trees. Formally named ‘Galanthus nivalis’ in the mid-18th century by Carl Linnaeus, a Swedish botanist, they epitomise the translation ‘milk flower of the snow’. Miniature winter-flowering snowdrops have an incredible ability to push through frozen ground as if by magic.
Some popular snowdrop species have east European origins, such as the larger Galanthus elwesii. This has glaucous, narrow, upright leaves and, as a native of the Caucasus, prefers a higher position with freer draining soil. Just as in many older parks and gardens, some are probably descended from original bulbs brought back by soldiers from after the Crimean War. They were amazed by these living carpets of snow in the landscape and called them ‘flowers of consolation’.
My much-loved, lime-green capped Galanthus gracilis, the only snowdrop with corkscrew leaves, stems from Bulgaria and southwestern Ukraine.
Thinking of the latter country, war-torn since February 2022, these slender flowers will add even more poignant meaning to my garden views this month.
There is never a complete white-out, thanks to several blankets of sunshine-loving, upward-facing yellow aconites interrupted here and there by chubbier, double snowdrops Galanthus ‘Flore Pleno’, which shyly hang their waxy, bell-shaped heads to hide their frillier faces in contrast.
I treat myself to at least one “new to me” named hybrid when visiting specialist open snowdrop gardens. Each “special memory” will help hone my observation skills, positioned in terracotta pots on shelving outside the family room window or planted in the ground at key ‘pausing’ points on the garden circuit.
Last year I invested in ‘The Apothecary’. As we left for the airport, its tips were just beginning to break through the soil. I hope it will still be flowering as we return.
Growth in hybridisation
One of my favourites is Galanthus ‘Magnet’, a heritage snowdrop distributed 50 years ago by Philip Ballard from one of the most famous nurseries based in the Malverns, Old Court Nurseries (founded in 1906) and The Picton Garden.
Ross Barbour, their current expert manager, says: “The secret of growing snowdrops is constant observation from the moment they appear.”
Magnet, for instance, is very distinctive when fully open on warmer days, and recognised by its attractive, extra-long arching pedicel or stem, dangling the flower with larger outer petals and a clear green notch on the inner petals.
With rapid growth in hybridisation, and much to learn for the perpetual student, one begins to appreciate why some snowdrops are more sought after than others.
Studying each tiny bloom can give as much pleasure as if surveying the finest array of pearl drop earrings in a Bond Street jeweller’s. Some say the green marks on the pristine white petals are the first signs of summer. Surprisingly varied, splashes and notches, as if fairy watercolourists have wielded green or yellow paintbrushes, are more absorbing and fascinating than any Sudoku or jigsaw puzzle.
Caring for snowdrops
Divide overly large clumps after they have finished flowering, and before they disappear to lie dormant for the remainder of the year. Rather than in over-enriched flower borders, where they are more prone to pick up disease, I replant small family groups under trees and in among grass.
Some experts recommend mulching after re-planting, although I find there is usually enough remnant,
This year I may attempt ‘chipping’, a method of splitting an individual bulb. Patience might just reward my endeavour, so I can share specimen cultivars such as the outstanding Galanthus ‘Big Boy’ with friends.
Exposure to cold can increase alertness and stimulate your nervous system. Hence a visit to one of Lincolnshire’s many snowdrop gardens (see side panels for details of openings) should shake off winter’s doldrums and sloth, especially when the air is crisp.
and climes, and their effective colonisation in often demanding, impoverished terrain is both an affirmation and witness to the power of nature.
These impeccable, delicate white flowers seem impervious to the hardest frost. Let’s step out for exercise among glistening snowdrops and, as we do, let us also pray that Ukraine’s brave citizens and refugees are similarly consoled and inspired, and soon back to enjoying uplifting scenes of glistening beauty in peace.