Stepping foot inside a garden famed for its snowdrop displays can sometimes leave the uninitiated open mouthed. Not only will you be dazzled by sheets of gleaming white flowers, but it’s very likely that you’ll be confronted by the unusual sight of other visitors down on their hands and knees in front of the diminutive blooms.
This behaviour is perfectly normal for snowdrop fanatics, who are better known as galanthophiles, after galanthus, the botanical name for snowdrops – these folk are so passionate about this large tribe of bulbs that they like to examine plants in close detail, upturning flowers so they can see the green markings hidden on the petticoat of inner petals.
Found growing wild in woodlands across the UK, common snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) is considered to be a native of our shores. In fact, this plant with narrow, strap-shaped leaves and 10cm high stems carrying flowers with a faint whiff of honey, comes from mainland Europe. Some think it was introduced by the Romans, but it probably arrived much later, as the earliest written record of it in Britain dates to 1778.
Although we’ve been growing them for hundreds of years, our love affair with snowdrops really took off in the middle part of the 19th century. Soldiers returning from the Crimean War brought home bulbs of varieties indigenous to the Caucasus – among them was Galanthus plicatus, whose large flowers sit on 20cm stalks above a cluster of distinctively wide, folded leaves.
Many more were introduced by Victorian plant hunters and breeding work over the years has led to a staggering number of different varieties – the Royal Horticultural Society Plant Finder lists around 300 available in the UK, but there’s probably closer to 1500 different ones worldwide.
Every February, thousands of people descend on gardens around the country that are known for their brilliant displays – after feasting their eyes, there’s usually an opportunity to buy plants that have freshly dug up from the garden. In recent years there’s also been an increase in special events or festivals, where nurseries or collectors sell some of their diminutive treasures.
To the untrained eye, one variety snowdrop looks remarkably like another, but there are differences. Plants range in height from 10cm to relative whoppers of around 27cm. Leaves can be narrow or wide, while the inner flower petals are adorned with green dashes on the inner petals known as sinus marks – these vary from one variety to another.
The variations between plants are often negligible, but the cause of great excitement among galanthophiles. Anything rare or unusual is likely to cost a lot of money and it’s not unheard of for collectors to spend hundreds of pounds snapping up a desirable variety from a mail order company. In 2012, a single bulb of Galanthus woronowii ‘Elizabeth Harrison’ was bought for £724, making it the most expensive snowdrop in the world.
Yet, you don’t need collector’s items to make an impact; there are plenty of modest varieties that will turn heads. It’s hard to beat good old Galanthus nivalis with its nodding white heads adorned with an upturned green V on the inner petals. It spreads slowly but steadily to form large colonies over time. It does well in pots, which would make a great gift for a gardening friend.
Galanthus elwesii and its varieties tend to be taller and more robust than others, while G.plicatus is desirable for its large flowers and broad leaves. If you like it, check out closely related ‘Augustus’ and ‘Colossus’. Other easy to grow snowdrops that won’t break the bank, include ‘S.Arnott’, ‘Atkinsii’ and ‘Lady Beatrix Stanley’.