Fashion and promotion guide what we grow in our gardens and few plants are more fashion driven or more strongly promoted than snowdrops so it is no wonder that the snowdrops we choose can be more strongly influenced by those who wish to sell them than by considerations of good value and good performance in the garden.
The present fashion wave in snowdrops is for those which have green markings not alone on the inner segments but also on the outer – virescent snowdrops – and the nearer a cultivar approaches being an all-green snowdrop the more it is valued. It might seem odd that a green snowdrop should be so sought after but it has always been the case that the snowdrop which deviated most from the norm was the curiosity which was most valued. In days gone by, the double snowdrop outshone the single; the one with the larger or different markings outstripped the normal markings; those with yellow markings outdid those with green and on it went in the pursuit of the rare and the unusual or “RUE”s as an old gardening friend used call such plants: Rare, Unusual and Expensive!
It is very appropriate that green is the present favourite as it echoes the colour of money – and “Greenback” will surely be used shortly as a snowdrop name! Commerce is a major driving force in the snowdrop world. Fashion creates demand and demand leads to high prices. I am a very regular user of a Facebook page, “Snowdrops and Galanthophiles” where people post photographs of their snowdrops – no worse than photographs of cats, I suppose – and there is general chat about days out, visits to snowdrop gardens, snowdrop talks, sales etc. The participants are enthusiastic and the chat is light and friendly with regular happy posts of the most recent acquisitions. There will also be posts of the most recent snowdrop introductions – which may not even be available for sale yet – but the enthusiasts love to see what might next grace the sales benches and, possibly, their gardens.
It has struck me on a number of occasions, when somebody obviously relatively new to growing and collecting snowdrops and without any great number of varieties posts photographs of their latest purchases that these are regularly of the latest introductions, those currently the “talk of the town”, so to speak, and, of course, the most expensive. It puzzles me that beginners seem to often start with the most rare and expensive snowdrops and yet may not be growing the tried, tested and reliable varieties which have graced gardens for years and which, more importantly, are more likely to be good performers in the garden.
The latest snowdrop introductions are likely to have been propagated by a method known as “twin-scaling” – the cutting of a bulb into very small segments each of which has a part of the basal plate which will then go on to form bulbils which are grown on until big enough for the process to be repeated until a sufficient number are available for sale and this is often before the bulbs have been trialled as a garden plant so the purchaser is taking a risk that they may be buying what appears to them an attractive snowdrop but which may not do well in their garden. One regularly reads comments on internet forums along the lines of “I bought that last year but it never appeared this year” and even hear experienced growers comment that a much praised snowdrop simply does not do well, does not grow strongly and is generally a weakling in the garden. When such comments are commonplace one has to imagine that not all these gardeners are careless or incompetent and that fault lies elsewhere. The constant hype over new introductions entices enthusiasts to purchase and the novice galanthophile is most vulnerable. Never could the phrase “Caveat emptor” be better employed.
So, here are a few suggestions for good easy-to-grow snowdrops which are not ridiculously priced and which have shown themselves to be good garden plants. I’ll keep it to a very short list because lists have a tendency to grow and grow.
is the common snowdrop and, while “common” might sound a disparaging description, in fact it signifies that this snowdrop grows so well for us that it has become common. For the cost of a cultivar in the mid-price range one could purchase 100 common snowdrops and instead of a spot of white one could have a planting of good garden impact. It has the largest natural distribution of all the snowdrops and is the most widely grown in cultivation and has an Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society – recognition of its value, amenity and reliability as a garden plant. It has been in cultivation in England since the 16th century and has become widely naturalised there.
Another snowdrop with the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Merit is the double form of the common snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis ‘Flore Pleno’ which has double flower – rather than the three small inner segments and three larger outer it has a multiplicity of segments so that it is a bigger, chunkier flower which gives greater impact in the garden. As with many of the double-flowered snowdrops it does not produce seeds but it is a very vigorous grower and will multiply quickly in the garden. While its origins are not clear it certainly dates to the early 1700s and has been a treasured garden plant for these past three centuries.
Galanthus ‘Atkinsii’ originated, around 1860, in the Gloucestershire garden of James Atkins, one of the great snowdrop enthusiasts of the time and still remains one of the most elegant, beautiful and excellent garden plants we could grow. In earlier descriptions it was regularly compared in elegance to the drop pearl earrings of Elizabeth 1 and this, indeed, does capture its beauty. It flowers reliably in January and so will provide interest ahead of the main snowdrop season.
Those snowdrops which are still grown and admired over a century after their first introduction certainly have a good track record and have earned their place in our gardens. Galanthus ‘Magnet’ dates to the garden of James Allen in the late 19th century, was described glowingly by the enthusiasts of the day, and still remains a darling garden snowdrop. Besides growing with ease, a good healthy plant, it also has attractive features which are very pleasing to the eye bring joy to the garden and gardener. The flower is large, certainly twice that of the common snowdrop, and it is held on a long pedicle – that small “stem” holding the flower – so that the flowers swing and sway in the breeze.
A relatively more recent introduction – compared to those above – is Galanthus ‘S. Arnott’. Very little is known of its origins other than Samuel Arnott, a provost in Dumfriesshire, Scotland, sent bulbs to Henry J. Elwes at Colesbourne Park who distributed it as “Arnott’s Seedling”. It was exhibited by The Giant Snowdrop Company in 1951 and the name ‘S. Arnott’ was applied shortly afterwards. It is a tall, strong growing and elegant plant with a large flower which has a faint fragrance of honey – best enjoyed in the warmth of the house.
This selection will bring interest and colour to your garden in late winter and early spring and will, most likely, begin you on a search for more of these delightful plants. However, I advise that you pursue those plants which have been tried and tested and not rush to the most recently introduced and as yet untested.
A final word of advice: Snowdrops bought as dry bulbs are not the best. They regularly fail to thrive in the garden. It is better to purchase growing bulbs or those offered “in the green” (lifted from the garden while the foliage is still green and quickly replanted). Two good sources near to me are Robert Millar’s Altamont Plant Sales at Altamont Gardens in Co. Carlow and Guy de Shriver’s “Field of Blooms” for mail order sales.
Post Scriptum: If you really must have a snowdrop with green markings on the outer segments – well, we all like to be, at least, in touch with modern trends and fashions – I will recommend Galanthus ‘Viridapice’ to you for it has proven itself to be long-lived, healthy and a good garden plant – and it is, like the others above, not expensive. It was found near an old farmhouse in northern Holland by Mr. J. M. C. Hoog of the Dutch bulb family.