Growing snowdrops has become a particular interest of mine over the past twenty years and while I would not wish to be labelled a “galanthophile” I do enjoy them very much. The term “Galanthophile” when originally introduced by E.A. Bowles meant, very simply, “a lover of snowdrops” while nowadays the term has come to signify one who is quite obsessed with collecting snowdrops and I certainly am not one of those. Despite the widespread use of this term to describe those who are interested in snowdrops its connotations are in fact very inaccurate and unfair. The world of snowdrop enthusiasts has its fair share of the obsessed but has an equally fair share of generous and pleasant kind. Such kindness has led to my growing a large number of different snowdrops in my garden – most received as gifts or through exchange – but despite this number it is the snowdrops of Irish origin which particularly interest me.
There are quite a few snowdrops of Irish origin. The gardens at Primrose Hill in Lucan, the home of the late Mrs. Cicely Hall and her son, Robin, has been the source of many particularly excellent cultivars and might well be described as the home of Irish snowdrops with Galanthus ‘Cicely Hall’ one of the best one might grow. Liam Schofield introduced Galanthus ‘Greenfields’ in the 1950s from the garden of that name and it is still going well and is an excellent garden plant. Galanthus ‘Hill Poe’ which originated near Nenagh in Co. Tipperary is regarded as one of the jewels of the snowdrop world. Galanthus ‘Emerald Isle’ hails from Drew’s Court in Co. Limerick and is treasured for the dainty light green marks on the outer segments. ‘Straffan’ from the house of that name in Co. Kildare is widely regarded as the champion of Irish snowdrops as it grows well and has been grown for over a century. The list goes on and with the particular interest in snowdrops in recent years the list is being added to by enthusiasts on a yearly basis with favourite snowdrops being named and passed around to friends.
While a spread of ‘Straffan’ or, say, ‘Brenda Troyle, or ‘Greenfields’ or the individuality of ‘Hill Poe’ or ‘Cicely Hall’ are all treasured in their season there is another which I especially look forward to each year and that is Galanthus ‘Castlegar’ and I have two reasons for this. One is its season of flowering which is always before Christmas, so very early in the snowdrop season when few other varieties are out and my second reason is its association with the late Dr. J.G.D. (Keith)Lamb, one of our great Irish gardeners.
Keith had a very successful career in agricultural science. He took his degree in Reading University and continued his studies at University College Dublin, completing his doctorate in 1949 on The Apple in Ireland, Its History and Varieties and it is for this work that he is so fondly remembered as he can be credited with saving our heritage apple varieties from extinction. His work was especially recognised with the establishment of an orchard of these apples at University College Dublin, The Lamb Clark Historic Apple Collection, in 1997. He worked with An Foras Taluntais at Johnstown Castle in Wexford before moving to the Agricultural Institute’s Kinsealy Research Centre where he later became senior principal research officer. He introduced the commercial growing of blueberries to Ireland, near Portarlington, Co. Offaly, and went on to specialise in plant propagation.
My interaction with Keith was in none of these circles but simply as a gardener on his retirement to the family home at Clara in Co. Offaly. Visiting Keith and Helen was always a great pleasure. Keith delighted in showing his special plants in the garden – and there were many. My particular love were the swathes of trilliums, erythroniums and snowdrops while Keith was always proud to show his own cherry seedling, Prunus x incisa ‘Woodfield Cluster’ and his foundling from The Burren, Dryas octopetela ‘Burren Nymph’, a double form of the Mountain Avens which grow there. Most of all I remember the kindness of Keith and Helen who always made one feel welcome and always had time to chat about gardening matters and always insisted on some treasure as a souvenir to bring home. All these memories are now held by a little snowdrop which flowers before Christmas each year in our garden.
Regarding the snowdrop, Galanthus ‘Castegar’, Keith wrote to me:
“In 1985, Sir George and Lady Mahon took us to see their old home in Castlegar(on the outskirts of Galway City) . It was not a horticultural trip but when I looked out the window I saw snowdrops in flower under a tree and I was given a few bulbs. A year or two later Ruby and David Baker were here and were intrigued by such an early snowdrop. They took specimens to a meeting of snowdrop enthusiasts in England. They wrote back to say that no one knew what it was and that it should be named, hence the name, ‘Castlegar’.”
Keith would regularly write short articles for the newsletter of the Irish Garden Plant Society while I was editor and here is one which is interesting: