Tuesday 10th December 2019
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Words: Steffie Shields
Photography: Steffie Shields
Featured in the February 2019 issue

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Steffie Shields salutes gallant gardeners who open gardens in the depths of winter.

Just before the Millennium, we moved to Welby, excited by the location of our 1960s home, built in a nineteenth-century old rectory orchard. Come February 2000, we were thrilled when countless snowdrops appeared as if by magic along the boundary and in amongst winter aconites encircling the fruit trees. I’d enjoyed the challenge photographing dazzling drifts in low winter sunshine in old gardens and park woodlands the length of the county but, other than single and double flowers, had failed to notice variations.

Wild rabbits do not feed on our ‘native’ snowdrop, the common Galanthus nivalis with narrow leaves, probably introduced long ago by the Romans, but first differentiated by Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in the mid-eighteenth century. Touching stories recall returning soldiers bringing back different wild snowdrops, Galanthus plicatus, for their loved ones from the Crimean Peninsula campaign (October 1853 to February 1856) and as living mementos of their fallen comrades. These grew with broader grey-green leaves with edges folded back and longer flowers. I knew nothing about many hundreds of hybrid varieties cultivated since the Victorian era (estimated at now over 2,000) with rare bulbs changing hands for eye-watering sums of money.

Local National Garden Scheme (NGS Yellowbook) gardens created by Kathleen and Roy Beddington at Rippingale, Gill Richardson at Keisby, and Joan and Cliff Curtis at Hacconby opened a whole new world at my feet! I think of them all at snowdrop time, indebted for their infectious sharing of each quirky, ornamental ‘drop-pearl’ distinction and history. On hearing news that Cliff had sadly passed away last May, having enjoyed his garden almost to his last day, I reflected on the many Lincolnshire gardeners who benefited from his dedication.

Cliff was born in Bourne, an unassuming, gentle countryman, who worked as a groundsman for Lincolnshire County Council and was later encouraged by a Riseholme College lecturer to join the Alpine Society. Joan is the first to acknowledge that her husband became possessed by humble, miniscule milk-white blooms during the 1970s compulsive craze: ‘Galanthomania’. He went in search of slumbering remnants of a snowdrop collection in Old Ketton in Rutland, in a garden where the owner corresponded with and was visited by the celebrated gardener E A Bowles (1865–1954). Cliff’s eagle-eyed perseverance was eventually rewarded by discovering offspring from Galanthus ‘Ketton’, a tall Bowles introduction (1948) given to a friend living nearby. Thanks to his patient detective work, peripatetic explorations and correspondence with like-minded collectors worldwide, some marvellous snowdrops have been conserved. Cliff became an expert cross-breeder too with new hybrids named such as Galanthus ‘Squire Burroughs’.

The Curtis family generously shared their 300-year-old Hacconby cottage garden created from a farmyard, one of the first regular midwinter ‘snowdrop openings’ for the NGS, raising thousands of pounds for charity from ‘hordes’ of visitors. Many sightseers came away with an assortment of named specimen snowdrops, each with a unique habit or green or yellow markings, ‘hooked’ in to an enlightening hobby. Cliff gave his time freely, despite shyness, happy to impart his knowledge in conversation or by giving talks to clubs, opening eyes to the fascinating world of detailed botanical study. He once showed me Galanthus ‘Lavinia’, a rare, glamourous, tall, and symmetrical double hybrid. Originally raised in the 1940s by A H Greatorex, a commissioned cavalry officer in WWI and untrained gardener from Brundall in Norfolk, it was probably named in honour of his mother. I chose instead Galanthus gracilis, a small, early snowdrop with curly, twisting leaves like corkscrews, and lime-green ovary cap, and also honey-fragrant Galanthus ‘Magnet’ raised 130 years ago. Each long-petalled bloom displays a distinctive V-shaped green marking and hangs from a slender, thread-like pedicel swinging gracefully in the breeze.

Cliff and Joan’s sons Shaun and Robert, and daughter Sharron White, a hard-working professional gardener, are rightly proud of both parents who were founder members and loyal supporters of ‘SLUGS’, South Lincolnshire Garden Society, and many other societies and garden shows besides. Equally passionate about plants, Sharron intends to continue to nurture Cliff’s exceptional snowdrop collection including bulbs inherited recently from the late Hartley Byrom of Wigan, a close friend and avid collector.

Simon Garbutt, SLUGS Chairman, wrote a stirring obituary (available online https://slincsgardensoc.wordpress.com/tag/galanthus). He listed many of Cliff’s crossbred snowdrops: G. ‘Hacconby Early’, G. ‘Hacconby Green’, G. elwesii ‘Chapel Green Tip’, G. ‘Orchard Cottage’, G. nivalis ‘Mill House’, G. ‘Joan Curtis’ and a double, G. ‘Sharron Louise’. Simon related that in 2003, at a national ‘Galanthus Gala’ held in Bourne, Galanthus ‘Cliff Curtis’ was named in his honour and that “Many people have told Sharron they have a ‘Cliff Curtis Corner’ in their garden. There could be no better memorial and it is the one he would have appreciated the most.” My hope is that some will organise ‘snowdrop lunch parties’ and swap snowdrops, handing them on ‘in the green’ to gardening novices, as having come from Cliff’s legendary collection. All should flourish providing they do not become waterlogged.

This year marks the end of another era: John Rudd, 80 years young, head gardener at Little Ponton Hall, is set to retire officially. Over many years, John and his wife Gill, another talented plantsperson, have been stalwart helpers facilitating the annual opening of the McCorquedale family’s historic gardens for charity. Little Ponton snowdrop days are always inundated with visitors seeking to dispel bleak winter blues.

Here are dappled woodland slopes with alternating drifts of snowdrops and aconites along the winding River Witham and the sublime welcome sight of buttercup-yellow carpets of winter aconites leading to St Guthlac’s ninth-century church. Near the house, delightful planting companions are dotted amongst the snowdrops: baby cyclamen, crocus, miniature iris and primroses, and nodding hellebores. John Rudd has quietly achieved so much added value, his passion for the gardens a hard act to follow. I suspect he will continue to ‘potter’ in the hall’s immaculate vegetable garden. Seize the chance to congratulate another of life’s natural gentlemen, and wish him a long, happy, well-earned retirement.

A William Wordsworth sonnet saw the snowdrop as “a pensive monitor of fleeting years”. True, gardens and gardeners sadly come and go. The real beauty of these naturalising bulbs with “modest grace” is their ability for self-perpetuation. Come early spring, a network of snow white, yellow and purple drifts multiply exponentially, silently self-seeding or, when the earth is randomly disturbed by mice, moles and squirrels, proliferated further afield.

More and more people will enjoy and spread the word about these symbols of hope and rebirth.

The legacy of many ardent gardeners such as Cliff Curtis and John Rudd will be gifts and garden openings that keep on giving. The middle weekend of February will see me heading first in the direction of Hacconby, something of a pilgrimage to experience the Curtis’s ‘Darling Buds of May’ garden one last time. I heartily recommend readers to do likewise. Remember to bend down low to examine closely their winter-flowering gems displayed in stone troughs and old wheelbarrows. You are sure to come away with a ‘soupçon’ of Cliff’s infectious passion for Wordsworth’s “chaste, venturous harbinger of spring”.

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