Sunday 4 February 2024

Snowdrops. I wonder when an interest becomes an obsession?

 Snowdrops. Almost exactly a year ago we visited the East Lambrook Manor gardens in Somerset. Then having read later in the year the Manor was up for sale I thought that may have been my final ever visit. However as the Manor is still for sale, it was a joy to know the gardens were open again for another snowdrop season.

We were not meant to come here on Saturday, it just happened. Earlier Mrs Wessex Reiver had an appointment to see a new client near Mark, after which we ended up at the Avalon Marshes Hub for a coffee. It was while sitting there that the conversation turned to snowdrops and when shall we visit East Lambrook. Why not now, the briefest of discussions concluded, and so half an hour later we were walking through the gate.

Chatting to the person taking the £7 entrance fee I discussed how nice it was to actually be here this year as I feared the sale may have prevented another visit. It turns out it's all to be discussed. No buyer yet, but whoever buys this Grade 1 house with a Grade 1 garden will be required to maintain the garden as Margery Fish planted it, however there's no requirement to open the garden to the public. Will I visit again next year? I hope so as I've become fascinated by snowdrops.

Like many I suspect I've enjoyed the arrival of these white beauties forever, without really taking any notice of what snowdrops are. I wrote about their history and presence in 2023 on this blog, therefore I'll not repeat myself. But that visit in 2023 changed my view. Most of the snowdrops I'd seen up until then were in woods, lanes, gardens and churchyard, these are often Galanthus nivalis, the ubiquitous form found across the British countryside. Yet there are around twenty species and now upwards of 2000 cultivars and varieties, many of which can be seen at the National Snowdrop  Collection curated by Margaret and David MacLennan in Cumbria. Next to East Lambrook Manor is Avon Bulbs which has been the source of many new cultivars due to the unbelievable work by their senior plantsman the late Alan Street.

In that Avon Bulbs setup there is a copse of mixed woodland which was planted up with hundreds of varieties as a security bulb-bank of cultivar type away from the nursery. That copse has subsequently produced tens if not hundreds of new, naturally self-seeded, snowdrop sports, discovered, cultivated up commercially and named by Alan Street in over three decades of dedicated botany. Many of the varieties on sale at East Lambrook on Saturday had come from next door so to speak. Sadly not Galanthus 'Fly Fishing' which I had on my shopping list during my visit, a variety Street spotted naturally in the copse and through the intensive process of twin scale cultivation brought it on to general sale.

Somerset could in some ways be thought of as a snowdrop centre, historically at least. Just thirty miles to the north one James Allen in Victorian times brought snowdrops to the general public through cultivar scaling up from natural characteristics he noticed in the Shepton Mallet  area. There is some discussion that Allen was the key driver in the development of Galanthophilia which continues a pace today. Margery Fish who developed East Lambrook Manor was a plantswoman who used snowdrops in her planting, many are still grown, and that attracts the visitors.

That garden today, in the centre of the village, is not large but it is a mecca for gardeners. Chatting to one of the team there they mentioned how important the garden remains to the horticultural visitor but is possibly less known to the wider public. Which is to be expected for a specialist garden. At this time of the year, throughout February, this is a must-visit site for lovers of these delicate snow piercers, so named due to a hardened leaf tip allowing the bulb to push through frozen soil. 

Something else I'd learned recently is how snowdrops attract early insects. It seems within the petal 'bell' of each flower the air temperature can be one or two degrees warmer than outside the flower. These micro heat islands thus attract pollinators, during the cold days of late winter, to come and warm themselves for a while and in return pollination is initiated. Plant-insect associations and adaptions are remarkable.

Many varieties here are growing naturally in soil, some of the more interesting varieties are on display in terracotta pots and by the sales area a wonderfully raised display of type snowdrop in absolutely perfect condition are there to see, allowing for a close up inspection of the subtle differences within essentially hundreds of varieties of a white flower on a green stem. Why then the recent obsession with snowdrops, fast becoming the 21st Century version of tulipmania?

I wish I could answer this. I now look at snowdrops with a different eye to only two or three years ago. I'm not yet becoming a Galanthophile, but I do worry I'm getting too interested in the minuscule colouration or form that can split one variety from another. Sometimes I can't tell the difference but with some single bulbs now fetching  around £2000 someone does and will pay handsomely. Looking at the many visitors buzzing around the bulb stock at the plant centre, where a roaring trade was taking place, I'm not alone in this interest developing dangerously out of control.

I'm glad then I can still step back and pick up on reality, and feel joy at seeing this snowdrop poking through these steps, I saw this same snowdrop last year and I love the fact it's still thriving in that tiny gap. As is a clump of 'Natalie Garton' which I saw last year, and the clump that said to me 'snowdrops are interesting' and not just a beautiful sign of the passage of winter.

Not everything during this visit obsessed on snowdrops. I did mess about with some arty photography and a little bit of wildlife watching, a queen buff tailed bumblebee was lazily quartering the ground, or like this, I think, white lipped snail one metre up a Miscanthus.

I was also fascinated by the hellebores for sale at the nursery area. Most of those for sale had flowers in the maroon, purple, brown and red spectrum. One variety though 'Harvington Yellows' is as its name suggests, a buttermilk yellow. I watched the early flying insects coming to these yellow flowers in preference to other colours. There were Harvington Yellows in two different areas and I watched as one bee flew between these two areas of yellow flowers while ignoring the darker colours. Why these yellow hellebores are preferred I'm not sure but I'm assuming it has something to do with just colour, in which case Mrs Wessex Reiver succumbed and bought three for our garden.

Back to snowdrops however. I did succumb myself to three new varieties for my developing collection, increasing my varieties by 100%, to six.. Last year I bought three snowdrops, two cultivars, 'Marjorie Brown' and  'Natalie Garton', and a species Galanthus, gracilis. On this latest visit I succumbed despite the price to Galanthus plicatus 'Madeleine', Galanthus Phillipe Andre Meyer (which was on my shopping list) and Galanthus Elwesii 'sickle'. Seen together the subtle differences are obvious. I'm hooked but this is becoming very expensive.

So what next? Well I'm keen to grow these on in containers, to show them at their best,  alongside last year's purchases. The books will tell you snowdrop don't grow well in containers as they suffer if they dry out or are subject to heavy frost. Yet I experimented last year with 'Natalie Garton' in a pot. It is flowering exceptionally well, better than 'Marjorie Brown' planted in the cutting bed which is just emerging,  or G. gracilis which is in a border but not flowering, suggesting it isn't happy.

G. Natalie Garton 

G. gracilis

G. Marjorie Brown

I've been reading around container growing, it is possible, but the snowdrops need repotting every May and throughout the year, even when dormant,  the compost needs to be kept watered but not waterlogged. In addition if a period of heavy and prolonged frost is due the pot will need protecting. The leaves and flowers are tough, the bulbs however less so. I'm looking forward to cracking this over the coming year. Am I simply interested or truly becoming obsessed?

And I'm already thinking about next year. I mentioned earlier the National collection is in Cumbria. Last August 300 bulbs were sent from there to Thenford Arboretum near Banbury. This year more will arrive nudging the Arboretum's collection to 1500. This new southern collection is now under the curation of the owner, one Michael Heseltine, the politician, who has spent over four decades creating this stunning garden. Sadly their snowdrop days are sold out this year, but already bookings are possible for February 2025.

Am I becoming obsessed, or simply interested? Discuss.


  1. A wonderful post and super photos. Well looking at the price of the snowdrops you bought I think you are more than just simply interested :) But possibly not obsessed yet.............. :) The gardens look lovely and I am so pleasaed they were still open this year.
    I do love snowdrops but usually visit churchyards to see them but about five years ago I decided I wanted to see them en masse so my son and I went to Easton Walled Gardens and it was a wonderful sight :) I did buy one variety which I think was about £10 but they never seem to do that well in our garden. Interesting your thoughts on growing them in containers.
    Love those yellow hellebores - very unusual :)

  2. Thank you. I think my wild spending needs to end, some on the list they had were £200-£300 for a bulb. If I ever spent that much, I'd be seriously obsessed. for some reason I've heard of Easton Walled Gardens, but can't think why now, maybe a colleague has been there for a programme. The more unusual varieties are tricky I think. Is that the charm I wonder? :-)