Monthly Archives: January 2015

Mad about snowdrops

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.

Woman holding Galanthus nivalis in terracotta pot - © GAP Photos

Woman holding Galanthus nivalis in terracotta pot – © GAP Photos

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.

Snowdrops for sale at the 2009 Galanthus Gala - © Howard Rice/GAP Photos

Snowdrops for sale at the 2009 Galanthus Gala – © Howard Rice/GAP Photos

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.

Galanthus 'Alison Hilary', Snowdrop. Close up portrait of single white flower with green markings - © Richard Bloom/GAP Photos

Galanthus ‘Alison Hilary’, Snowdrop. Close up portrait of single white flower with green markings – © Richard Bloom/GAP Photos

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.

Unpacking a mail order, rare snowdrop cultivar, Galanthus 'Wasp' which has arrived in good condition and has flowered the previous year - © Graham Strong/GAP Photos

Unpacking a mail order, rare snowdrop cultivar, Galanthus ‘Wasp’ which has arrived in good condition and has flowered the previous year – © Graham Strong/GAP Photos

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.

Woman holding Galanthus nivalis planted in woven basket - © GAP Photos

Woman holding Galanthus nivalis planted in woven basket – © GAP Photos

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’.

Twisted hazel

Frosted branches - Bourton House Garden, Bourton-on-the-Hill, Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire - © Jason Ingram/GAP Photos

Frosted branches – Bourton House Garden, Bourton-on-the-Hill, Moreton-in-Marsh, Gloucestershire – © Jason Ingram/GAP Photos

The amazing twisted branches of corkscrew hazel (Corylus avellana ‘Contorta’) are barely noticeable for much of the year, but once the large leaves of this tree-like shrub fall to the ground in autumn, they are revealed in their full glory.

This plant is one of the highlights of the winter garden, acting like a living sculpture against a monochrome landscape. It’s particularly effective after a cold snap, when the branches glisten under a coating of sugary haw frost. In January it has a surprise – countless, fat yellow catkins that sway gently from its stems when caught in a breeze.

Discovered growing in a hedgerow in Gloucestershire by Lord Ducie in 1863, it was passed on to Victorian horticulturist E.A Bowles at Myddleton House in Enfield, London. He grew it in part of his garden that was known as the ‘Lunatic Asylum’. Many years later, the hazel was dubbed Harry Lauder’s walking stick, after the crooked walking cane used by the Scottish entertainer.

Corkscrew hazel will do well in fertile, well-drained soil and is happy in full sun or partial shade. Treat it as a specimen or combine with other plants to ramp up the interest in winter – it looks good with dogwoods, hellebores and early spring bulbs.

Pruning wisteria

Wisterias are fast growing deciduous climbers grown for their highly scented flowers that drip pendulously from plants in late spring. However, if left to its own devices, they will produce masses of leafy growth at the expense of the flowers. Pruning diverts the plants energy from making foliage into producing flower buds, while reducing the mass of whippy shoots helps light reach the network of branches inside. Although wisterias can cover a large area, don’t trim back quickly with a pair of shears. Precise pruning twice a year – January or February, and again in August – with secateurs will give you much better results.

Pruning Wisteria sinensis - Cutting annual growth back to the main stem - © Sarah Cuttle/GAP Photos

Pruning Wisteria sinensis – Cutting annual growth back to the main stem – © Sarah Cuttle/GAP Photos

Fill the framework
Before you start pruning the wisteria, select a number of the strongest branches to fill in any gaps within their supporting structures. Secure them firmly in place with garden twine.

Pruning Wisteria sinensis - Cutting annual growth back to the main stem - © Sarah Cuttle/GAP Photos

Pruning Wisteria sinensis – Cutting annual growth back to the main stem – © Sarah Cuttle/GAP Photos

Reduce side shoots
Cut back side shoots to within two to three buds of the main stems – these will become flowering shoots in the spring. Reduce stems if they’ve grown beyond their allotted space.

Pruning long tendrils of Wisteria sinensis after flowering in summer - © Sarah Cuttle/GAP Photos

Pruning long tendrils of Wisteria sinensis after flowering in summer – © Sarah Cuttle/GAP Photos

Summer care
Wisterias are incredibly vigorous climbers and will grow rampantly after they’ve finished flowering, producing masses of very long shoots clothed with leaves. If left these will soon smother supporting structures.

Pruning long tendrils of Wisteria sinensis in summer after flowering - © Sarah Cuttle/GAP Photos

Pruning long tendrils of Wisteria sinensis in summer after flowering – © Sarah Cuttle/GAP Photos

Reduce shoots
Working methodically, prune all side shoots to within five or six leaves of the main stems and remove any unwanted growth from the base. Repeat if necessary, later in summer.

Debris of Wisteria sinensis tendrils in bucket, having been pruned back after flowering in summer - © Sarah Cuttle/GAP Photos

Debris of Wisteria sinensis tendrils in bucket, having been pruned back after flowering in summer – © Sarah Cuttle/GAP Photos

Finishing off
By the time you’ve finished pruning you’re likely to have removed a lot of growth. Don’t worry about making mistakes, wisteria are very forgiving and will soon produce new shoots.