Who doesn’t love snowdrops? They’re small but perfectly formed, utterly captivating and are the first signs of spring. I have just one small patch of them in my south London garden, under a robinia tree, tucked among the wallflowers. I dug them up from my gran’s garden in Wales nearly 20 years ago, after she died, and transplanted them. Each January, their spritely grey-green shoots emerge from the soil like magic, and I think of her. And when the winter sun slants through the bare branches of the tree, shimmying off their icy white bonnets, I promise myself I’ll plant more.
Now is the best time to plant snowdrops, so I need to get on with it and not miss the window, like I did last year. You can get hold of Ashridge bulbs here . They tend to be more reliable planted ‘in the green’, before the leaves wither, and that's true of aconites and bluebells as well. To grow well, they need good drainage, humus-rich soil and dappled shade. They struggle a bit on my London clay, and sadly don’t multiply quite like they did in the little back garden of my gran’s bungalow near Welshpool. Leafmould is the best kind of fertiliser for them, as it recreates their conditions in the wild, in their native woodlands. Mine are growing in a border, but you can naturalise them in lawns, too. Just choose a spot where the lawn growth isn’t too dense.
Some love snowdrops to the extreme. There’s a name for these obsessives: galanthophiles, (Galanthus nivalis being the Latin name for the common snowdrop). Galanthophiles gather in January and February to admire the markings on different cultivars, pondering over the finer points of the tiny white petals, the twist of the leaves or the size of the sinus marks (those little flecks of green at the base of each flower). And they will pay crazy amounts for unusual examples (more than £700 was handed over on eBay in 2012 for a snowdrop with a yellow head and markings). The virginal white flowers are the object of high passions. Famously, in 2011 after a Royal Horticultural Society show, the entire stock of Galanthus ‘Green Tear’ was stolen from the Somerset nursery that supplied it.
If you want to see huge swathes of snowdrops without going to such lengths, there are plenty of dedicated snowdrop days held at gardens around the UK. I’ve only visited Painswick Rococo Garden in summer. Tucked away in a hidden valley in Gloucestershire, it’s all sweeping vistas, fanciful follies and pavilions, and long avenues of beautifully manicured lawns. But in January and February, among the Rococo finery and above the maze, there are 5 million snowdrops in flower, across 15 varieties. One of these is Galanthus ‘Atkinsii’, discovered there in the 1800s by James Atkins, who lived in a cottage on the estate. ‘Full blooming’ is announced towards the end of January.
One of the best-known places to see snowdrops is Hodsock Priory, in Nottinghamshire. Snowdrops here number 4 million, and cover around 5 acres of the estate and 100 acres of woodland, on a signposted walk with a camp fire en route. They’re open for snowdrops this year from 9th to 17th February.
If you’re on the obsessive side snowdrop-wise, and you’re after something a bit different, I’d recommend the annual Ultimate Snowdrop Sale at Myddleton House Gardens in Enfield, Middlesex, this year on January 26th. It’s where the specialist nurseries take their wares, and it’s an event that’s built up a reputation over the years as the place to find rare varieties. A single plant of one new variety sold there for £80 in 2017. The organisers advise turning up early, as the sale is ‘fast and furious’.
Personally, I think I’ll settle for a few handfuls of common snowdrop bulbs. They’re perfectly pretty, and I won’t have to worry about anyone digging them up in the night.
Francesca Clarke, Journalist and Garden Designer