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Gardening follows fashion. It swings back and forth like a pendulum and it shows in the plants we grow and the gardens we make. Garden style reflects the mood of the age and it is easy to see why those upright Victorians loved elaborate gardenesque style — it matched their lifestyle.
We on the other hand, living in the age of the nanny state, seem to prefer soft swathes of airy plants kept in check by clichéd box or hard landscape.
When it comes to the rise and fall of plant popularity, one of the best illustrations is the snowdrop. It was hugely popular in the 19th century. It then fell from favour in the early 1900s only to resurface once again as an iconic ‘must-have’ plant.
Last February some snowdrop bulbs were selling on eBay for £80 and they were snapped up. Even I (with my strong streak of Yorkshire thriftiness) have paid £25 for single bulbs. More worryingly, some have turned up their toes almost immediately.
Virginal snowdrops have inspired generations to collect, breed or just covet them. Rare ones have even induced visitors to RHS Wisley’s collection to theft. So much so that labels have been removed to be replaced by numbers in an attempt to safeguard them.
So far I have stayed on the straight and narrow, although I have felt the devil on my shoulder a few times. But by looking at certain varieties it is possible to track their rise and fall.
One of the Victorian hybrids from the 1860s, Galanthus ‘Atkinsii’, was grown by retired nurseryman James Atkins at Rose Cottage at Painswick, Gloucestershire. It was almost certainly a wild-collected bulb originally — many species and hybrids were introduced in the mid-18th century. This snowdrop is early and tall. The narrow-petalled flowers open widely, rather like the legs on a tripod, but place it at the back so that its dying flowers won’t mar later bulbs.
Snowdrops grow particularly well in Gloucestershire and sheets of the common Galanthus nivalis colonise the slopes of the Rococo Garden within a mile of Atkin’s Painswick cottage.
Nearby, at Colesbourne Park, there is another fine collection put together by Henry and Caroline Elwes. They are direct descendants of Henry John Elwes (1822-1916) and a statuesque, grey-leaved snowdrop with bold markings is named G. elwesii. Some forms are very early and, like many grey-leaved snowdrops, G. elwesii prefers a more-open position near the front of a woodland garden.
Elwes was a man of means and able to devote his life to collecting plants. Edward Augustus Bowles (1865-1954) was in a similar position.
He was a pivotal figure because he painted his snowdrops accurately and his paintings, now in the Lindley Library at Vincent Square, London, have recorded the characteristics of heritage varieties for posterity. However more importantly he carried on growing snowdrops after they fell from fashion. Bowles is commemorated by a squat snowdrop with bright-green leaves called ‘Augustus’. The bulbous flowers are a clean white and the petals have a seersucker texture.
Bowles was also the first man to coin the phrase galanthophile and this hardy, but exclusive breed are still going strong today.
Both Elwesand Bowles grew a robust snowdrop that came to be known as ‘S. Arnott’. It was named after Sam Arnott (1852-1930) a retired Scottish Provost who turned to gardening in his retirement. The snowdrop seems to have been around circa 1911 and it has a honey scent and holds its pearly droplets very vertically.
Arnott had been dead for 20 years when the pristine flower named after him once again reignited the flame of the snowdrop’s popularity after it was exhibited at a London RHS show in 1951. The bulbs came from a garden near Chalford near Stroud where thousands colonised the sloping garden. Snowdrops (like many bulbous plants) love a slope.
They had been planted by Walter Butt a well-known plantsman. But the dearth of gardeners in the Second World War and ill health had forced Butt to move from his well-stocked garden. The property was subsequently bought by a retired Brigadier called Leonard Mathias. The family discovered the snowdrops after the heavy snows of 1947 had melted and, aided by their capable gardener/chauffeur Herbert Ransom, they started a commercial venture called The Giant Snowdrop Company.
This nursery made front-page news with their woodland displays and even the late Queen Mother grew their snowdrops. The nursery closed in 1968. But by then snowdrops were once again on the up, and they continued to be helped on their way by Ransom who carried on distributing bulbs to interested beginners. Oxfordshire plays its part in snowdrop history too because the most prominent galanthophile following Bowles’ death in 1954 was Primrose Warburg (1920-1996).
I never met her, but I was lucky enough to visit the garden at Boars Hill in spring 1997, shortly after her death.
It was a perfect spring day and the whole garden was covered in crocuses and choice snowdrops. A yellow-flowered form, ‘Primrose Warburg’, was named after her posthumously. However I have found the very similar ‘Spindlestone Surprise’ a better doer.
In 1975 a cheeky double with upward facing flowers was discovered in Blewbury and eventually named ‘Blewbury Tart’. It spreads well, though it lacks the grace of the taller, tutu-skirted Greatorex Doubles bred in Norfolk by a mysterious Mr Greatorex.
Most have Shakespearian or classically-inspired names like ‘Ophelia’ and ‘Hippolyta’.
Just like Oxford’s Inspector Morse, Greatorex always refused to divulge his Christian name. But when the new monograph on snowdrops (by Bishop, Davis and Grimshaw) was published in 2001 it was revealed to be Heyrick —which is probably worse than Endeavour Morse.
The snowdrops I have mentioned can be acquired from Avon Bulbs (01460 242177)
Snowdrops will be celebrated at special Snowdrop Weekends during February at Waterperry Gardens, Wheatley, near Oxford. The historic ornamental gardens provide the perfect setting for the Galanthus. These wonderful little heralds of spring carpet the old orchard and riverside walks at this time of the year, and winter aconites are also likely to bring a smile to visitors’ faces, providing new hints of colour in the garden.
Throughout both Snowdrop Weekends from 10am-4.30pm on February 7-8 and 13-14, Waterperry staff will be on hand to offer advice about planting techniques. ‘In-the-green’ plants will also be available to buy, including some unusual snowdrop cultivars. For more information, call 01844 339226.