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21 February 2024

After disregarding the simple snowdrop, I now see its beauty

The passion for these modest winter flowers has taken off in the past 20 years. And I have become a “galanthophile” too.

By Alice Vincent

After a decade of active gardening, this might be the first time I’ve begun to understand that certain pocket of horticultural society which devotes itself to snowdrops. The modest white flowers, so associated with the start of the year and widely understood to be a harbinger of the longer days and spring flowers to come, have typically left me as cold as the conditions they relish. It doesn’t matter how many spreads from seed catalogues or Gardens Illustrated I pore over, looking at snowdrops on the page feels like a futile game of spot-the-difference: a slightly darker green segment here, a blousier outer petal there, one ruffle verses two.

I must be missing something: single snowdrop bulbs have been known to fetch four-figure sums. A couple of years ago a Galanthus “Golden Tears” bulb sold on eBay for £1,850 (amusingly, P&P wasn’t included, and added a further fiver to the bill). The flower in question had large green marks on its white petals. This isn’t a swizz on the plantsman’s behalf so much as an indicator of plant-based avarice: the man responsible, Joe Sharman of Monksilver Nursery, starts all of his auctions at 99p. He broke his own record – a sale of £1,390 in 2015 for a bulb called “Golden Fleece”. It had taken him a Homeric decade to breed, in fairness.

While people have been collecting snowdrops since Edwardian times, it’s only in the past 20 years that this level of passion for snowdrops, or “galanthophilia”, has really taken off. We may have seen its peak – although at the time of writing snowdrop debutante “Princess Bennie” is racking up bids of £460 with three days to go and could be another record-breaker – but the number of snowdrop festivals around the country suggests Brits still think this little plant worthy of celebration.

It’s an unusual example of a plant that thrives in extremes: best viewed, I feel, either in abundant swathes, or as a single bloom and up close. Festivals make the most of the former. They’re hosted all over the UK, including at the Chelsea Physic Garden (though it wraps up by the end of January and I often miss it) to Coton Manor in Northamptonshire and Cambo Estate in Fife (which both run into March). If I could get myself down to Margery Fish’s extraordinary garden in Somerset in the coming days I would. In the 1940s, Fish, a legendary pioneer of cottage gardening, turned a drainage channel between two orchards into “The Ditch” – a humble name for a beautiful sloping rockery with a stream that is smothered by snowdrops at this time of year. The Manor was sold to new owners last year, so the future of the East Lambrook snowdrop festival is uncertain.

Instead, I’ve taken to spotting snowdrops in my usual haunts. My local park has a conservation area that is strewn with them. While inspecting them one morning recently, I realised they had been dormant under the ground that I sat on with friends in the summer, all of us and our children in the hazy grip of the four-month sleep regression, barely able to keep a conversation afloat. I don’t know the variety in the park, but like most snowdrops it is exquisite up close: soft, impossibly white petals, a wink of green inside.

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Now is the time when you can buy them “in the green”, or growing above ground – the easiest, and most elegant, way to get them into your garden. Wait three years and you can lift and divide the clumps, which will have expanded at quite an astonishing rate. This, I think, is another part of their appeal: the drifts that we marvel at are the result of decades, if not centuries, of quiet devotion to growing something beautiful at the most uninspiring time of the year.

The Victorians associated snowdrops with hope, and beyond the mania for single bulbs and desire for different varieties, that’s still what they mean to us. With snowdrops, we plant hope – and we’ve never needed it more.

[See also: Herbs and flowers flourish in my hilltop garden, except where I want them]

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This article appears in the 21 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Fractured Nation

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