On a Chalk Hillside February 2021

Published: 11th February 2021

Posted on 11.02.2021 |
Added in Sheila May's Blog

Snowdrops – great garden visits and inspiration

As I write this article, lockdown has been extended til at least 8 March so I will not be able to visit any of the great snowdrop gardens that I usually do in February.  Instead I shall look back on previous visits and share my delight in them with you. 
The first snowdrop garden I ever visited was Hodsock Priory on the borders between Nottinghamshire and South Yorkshire during the 1990's.  They especially open round half term to allow people to walk through the formal gardens and down to the woodland where there is massed planting of Galanthus nivalis under beech trees:-

hodsock mass snowdrops 55

I have mentioned before that their bank of Galanthus ‘S.Arnott' that you walk past inspired me to buy some bulbs and plant them under my Acers in this garden, trying to get the Black grass Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens' to grow through them – here's the original:-

mass s arnott 33

Here's my “homage” with the G. ‘S.Arnott' peeping through on 10 Jan 2020:-

s arnott in my garden coming up 68

And in full flower by 26 Jan:-

sarnottflower 42

Before we go any further I had better confess my problem.  Not being a “proper” galanthophile, I “know” these are G. ‘S.Arnott' because there is a label in the middle of them saying so.  I “know” they are a taller more robust snowdrop.  But to me as a garden visitor, the mass of G. S.'Arnott' in the second picture of the article doesn't look sufficiently different from the mass of G. nivalis in the first photo for me to be able to tell them apart as I walk round the garden.  I can see that Elwesii types have a more grey/glaucous than the common snowdrop.  If they are planted next to each other I can tell if one is taller or shorter than another, and if I crouch down I can see doubles from singles, and possibly some of the different markings on the white petals.  But the joy I get from seeing a mass of tiny white nodding flower heads in the winter sun is just the same if it is G. nivalis or a more fancy plant.   
I can definitely tell a Spring Snowflake (), with their tiffany lampshade heads, from a snowdrop – and they have lots at Hodsock:-

leucojum vernum 41

But you need to be at eye level with the snowdrops (or even underneath the drooping flower) to be able to see all the subtle differences between them and for many years I wasn't agile or steady enough not to get very muddy knees in my “smart” trousers trying to see snowdrops at ground level, not something my husband was at all happy with.  Visits to Hodsock Priory got interrupted by the Foot and Mouth crisis in 2001 when travel round the country was halted to try and stop the disease spreading.  Other gardens were required to get the snowdrop fix instead.   We have always visited Kew Gardens for their Orchid Festival in early Feb, and taken the opportunity to walk through their snowdrops.  Some mass planting in grass, but also species in their rock ranges, which whilst not at ground level, are not near the viewer either.  I find having a camera with a big zoom feature is helpful as I can take a photo at full zoom and appreciate the detail and catch the name (assuming it is in focus!) on the computer at home later – here's one I took when we visited on 10 Feb 2020:-

ginns imperial snowdrop 60

It was a cold day, and the clump of G. Ginns' Imperati' was a long way away so I couldn't smell its bitter almond scent which travels along way on a warm day, and is its main difference for us non-afficionados to G. nivalis ‘S.Arnott' which has a honey fragrance.  

Now here is one I can tell is different from the normal – G. Ikariae from Greece:-

g.irikaesa 84

What a lovely flower shape, and broader leaves.  This is one of the 19 different species of Snowdrop and comes from the Aegean Islands where it often grows in shade by water.  It can force its way through ivy and seed itself around if the ground is damp.  Another snowdrop I can tell apart from G.Nivalis is G. Nivalis Viridapicis, which also likes the damp.  It was found in the Netherlands and named in 1922.  The picture here was taken at Kew, but I grow this snowdrop in my own garden too:-

g viridipace 9

The elongated flowers with the green smudge on the bottom of the petals mark it out for me.
To replace our visits to Hodsock, once we had moved to our chalk hillside, we took to visiting Colesbourne Park near Cheltenham in the Cotswolds which is home to the Elwes family, so very associated with snowdrops.  A real galanthaphile's garden, both massed planting, and lots and lots of very special snowdrops displayed at knee height for visitors to appreciate.   Imagine my delight to discover than one of the prides and joy of Sir Henry is his swathe of G. S. Arnott which looked very fine on 10 Feb 2020 – you may see it looks “clumpy”, the mass of snowdrops are dug up and redistributed in clumps every few years to keep it at tip top display (and so they can sell some bulbs to us visitors).  This had been redone after flowering in 2018 for the 2019 display, when it looked even more clumpy – but by 2020 had filled out many of the gaps already :-

sarnottcolesbourne 59

Even in my poor soil you can see from the photo nearer the top of the article how many G. S. Arnott snowdrops I had in patches in my garden – all from 6 bulbs 5 years ago.
Here is one they bred themselves at Colesbourne which has very striking markings – G. ‘Lord Lieutenant' named after Sir Henry:-

lord leutenant 39

To show you how I can tell a double from a single from a standing position here is a close up of G. nivalis f. pleniflorus ‘Pusey Green Tips', (The Pusey in question is not our local one in Wiltshire, but one in Oxfordshire apparently,) which is a double with some long petals tipped with green – you can see how much fatter the flower shape is than the one above, more like an opened umbrella:-

pusey green tip 6

Another distinctive type of plant is the yellow snowdrop – something I struggle to love I have to admit.  The team at Colesbourne have developed a yellow named after Lady Carolyn – G. elwesii ‘Carolyn Elwes' (which was stolen you may recall), but this one is G. ‘Primrose Warburg', found in the 1980's in the gardens of Primrose Warburg again in Oxfordshire:-

galanthus yellow 85

From yellow to blue – here's G. ‘Blewbury Tart' (which I always think should have a tinge of blue, but has a lot of green in instead!)  It helpfully holds many of its blooms upwards so you can see its double frills of mainly green – it was in fact found in Blewbury in Oxfordshire rather than having anything to do with Blueberries!:-

g blewbury20tart 57

Here's one with the green on the outside – G. nivalis ‘Green Tear', found by Gert Jan van der Kolk, and still very rare – another that was stolen when first displayed at an RHS show:-

green tea 10

Another distinctive flower shape and markings that I love is G. ‘South Hayes'.  It is often described as resembling the roof of a Chinese Pagoda but is fussy where it grows so is rare in gardens:-

south hayes 90


Talking of different flower shape, here is G. plicatus ‘Seraph' – such an ethereal white colour, just stunning:-

seraph 90

Here is a shot of inside G. plicatus ‘Seraph' to show its utter simplicity:-

seraphinsidecrop 79

The specialist books tell you that this is a poculiform G. plicatus which means all six of its segments are outer segments of the same length.  Poculiforms are often pure white it seems.  Seraph was thought to have vanished for many years, so is a rare and unfamiliar plant.

From this you can gather that by the time I get to the sales area I have a list of named varieties to look for and am either disappointed because they are so rare the display pot is all the garden has of that cultivar, or a single bulb is prohibitively expensive.  However, I am gradually acquiring a few easier to grow bulbs that are different to look at for different parts of my garden.   I have G. Viridapice near the S. Arnot under the acers, and some S. Arnott clones – ‘James Backhouse' under my pear trees with some G. elwesii, G.nivalis and G. Flora Pleno – common double snowdrop.  Each year I try to take a picture to show the different sizes of these plants, and each year more than half of them are out of focus.  Here's the best I have managed so far from the end of January last year:-

The nearest flower is G. nivalis ‘Flora Pleno', beyond are common single snowdrops:-

flora plena 7

Flora Pleno turned up to show the inner petals – such pretty markings:-

flora plena inside 21

To show the difference in height of different snowdrops G. elwesii ‘James Backhouse' to the fore, the shorter ones being either other Elwesii or the very short ones, G. nivalis.  (The fat flowers at the back are the doubles I showed above).  I planted them together in the hope that I will find a “sport” or new snowdrop one day – a gardener can dream can't they?!:-

assorted size snowdrops 12

Next time, only a year later (!) than advertised, the shade border in my gravel garden.

Sheila May

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