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Why are snowdrops so popular for gardeners in Kent?

Snowdrops add light to woodland paths <i>(Image: Leigh Clapp)</i>
Snowdrops add light to woodland paths (Image: Leigh Clapp)

Galanthophilia is the gardening bug that everyone wants to catch at this time of year, as our green-fingered experts explain…

Every February without fail, a fever sweeps through a select group of gardeners - it produces sweaty palms, the chills, over-excitability and a depleting bank balance.

The reason for this fever? A small flower with perfect white (and in rarer cases yellow) flowers with intricate markings that help define them from each other.

Snowdrop mania or "Galanthus-fever" is rife in January and February among the winter gardens and borders of a particular group of horticulturalists.

Although not native to Britain, common snowdrops, Galanthus nivalis, have naturalised happily here over the centuries, carpeting banks, woodlands and churchyards. These tiny bulbous perennials actually originate from Europe and the Middle East, and are believed to have been introduced to England in the 16th century, though as they were known under several different names no one knows for sure. Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist, first described the genus in 1753 - Galanthus is derived from two Greek words ‘gala’ meaning milk-white and ‘anthos’ flower, nivalis is Latin for ‘of the snow’. They were not recorded as growing wild in the UK until the 1770s, with these plants probably escapees from gardens. Christians dedicated snowdrops to the Virgin Mary, scattering them on altars at Candlemas Day (February 2) and bringing bunches into the churches as symbols of purity. This could explain why churchyards are often full of snowdrops to supply these rituals.

Great British Life: Snowdrops contrast well with ophiopogon, hellebores and heather Snowdrops contrast well with ophiopogon, hellebores and heather (Image: Leigh Clapp)

Snowdrops produce one small flower, often scented, which droops its head to the ground, opens with three large white petals around a short skirt of three further petals generally marked with green, and has the ability to reopen after collapsing in freezing temperatures. Plant tissue can be damaged by ice crystals, however many plants, including snowdrops, have ant-freeze proteins protecting them. Their long slender green or grey leaves, which resemble grass, also have hardened tips to help them break through frozen soil. The outer segments of the flower move in response to the temperature, moving upwards and outward to accommodate pollinating insects that are likely to be on the wing once the temperature rises above 10 degrees. Fashionable in the Victorian era, the delicate white hanging flower remains very popular today. Millions are sold each year, with snowdrop collectors and enthusiasts, known as galanthophiles, willing to pay large sums for new treasures – because snowdrops cross freely, there is always the possibility of finding variations that include different sizes, markings, petal numbers and colours.

The National Garden Scheme (NGS) will be kicking off the year with a chance to view gardens across the country – and of course here in Kent – featuring delicate snowdrops, as well as other spring bulbs. Someone who regularly takes part in the scheme is Carolyn Millen. At this time of year, she can be found tending 500 varieties of snowdrops in her Spring Platt garden in Sutton Valance, ahead of its annual NGS opening.

Great British Life: A pretty mix at Spring Platt A pretty mix at Spring Platt (Image: Leigh Clapp)

Carolyn’s mother grew snowdrops and aconites in her garden: ‘I always loved them but my own passion for collecting didn’t start until 20 years ago,’ she says.

To be precise, Carolyn’s ‘fever’ was sparked in 2002, when she visited a snowdrop sale in a village hall in Gloucestershire with her daughter Julie. Carolyn says: 'we thought there were just single and double snowdrops but we were blown away by how many different types of snowdrop there are - we bought eight snowdrops but should have bought the whole lot!'

Carolyn and her daughter Julie have grown their collection to 700 different varieties and showcase them at their NGS opening and with other snowdrop specialists at Great Comp Garden’s ‘Snowdrop Sensation’ plant fair in Platt near Sevenoaks.

Great British Life: Roger's Rough Snowdrops blooming in Great Comp Garden in time for its annual 'Snowdrop Sensation' plant fair, organised by the King of Snowdrops himself, Joe Sharman Roger's Rough Snowdrops blooming in Great Comp Garden in time for its annual 'Snowdrop Sensation' plant fair, organised by the King of Snowdrops himself, Joe Sharman (Image: Vikki Rimmer)

Started 10 years ago, Snowdrop Sensation has been known to attract over 900 galanthophiles in the space of just four hours, all keen to buy snowdrops from "Mr Snowdrop" himself, Joe Sharman.

An almost legendary figure in the snowdrop community, Joe’s fame has even reached national newspaper level, when he sold one of the most expensive ever single snowdrop plants in the world (more of which later).

A nurseryman with a passion for perennials, Joe began his foray into the snowdrop world when his mother came across an unusual snowdrop with yellow markings on a walk in his home county of Cambridgeshire. Joe was one of three people who was trusted with the find, and while the other nurseries failed to raise a good crop of snowdrops, Joe went on to nurture ‘Wendy’s Gold’, cementing his fame in the snowdrop world and putting Wendy on the map for many keen snowdrop gardeners.

Great British Life: Galanthus elwesii 'Big Boy'Galanthus elwesii 'Big Boy' (Image: Leigh Clapp)

"Wendy’s Gold" was a coup for Joe - but what would come next would confer legendary status on this humble gardener.

The "Trym" snowdrop is a favourite among galanthophiles for its unusual markings. Joe Sharman took "Trym" and crossed it with "Wendy’s Gold" to produce "Golden Fleece". This snowdrop created national interest when it sold on eBay for £1,390 (plus £4 postage) in 2015.

Not finished breaking records, in 2022 he sold Galanthus plicatus "Golden Tears" for £1,850 at auction, earning Joe Sharman the moniker "King of the Snowdrops".

Meanwhile, over at Hever Castle & Gardens, Neil Miller is a galanthophile with a passion for creating sweeping vistas of snowdrops. During the months of February, he has a particularly bad case of Galanthus-fever. He enthuses 'These beautiful flowers have much to teach us. They have medicinal properties and have been known to cure headaches.'

Great British Life: A single snowdrop popping up through helleboresA single snowdrop popping up through hellebores (Image: Leigh Clapp)

Neil explains, 'in the past, those with a throbbing head were known to pick a flowering snowdrop and gently rub the bulb at their temples!'

His team have planted 10,000 Galanthus nivalis snowdrops a year since, doubling the 70,000 count in 2017 to 140,000 snowdrops plants this year.

The mass planting of Galanthus nivalis at Hever Castle & Gardens provides an illusion of a carpet of white flowers sweeping ahead of the walker.

Not named after the weather that often accompanies these flowers but instead after jewellery, the snowdrop is a fascinating gem of a plant. Neil Miller explains, 'snowdrops were actually named after "eardrops", the first name for earrings, worn by women of the 17th century. They’re actually pretty useful plants as well - they contain their own anti-freeze proteins and were harvested during the First World War to make anti-freeze for tanks!'

Gardens featuring rare and interesting snowdrops are becoming ever more popular by the year, with many open to the public across the county during the early months of the year.

With snowdrop walks and fairs aplenty in Kent this February, snowdrop fever may be easily transmitted!One particular garden writer (Vikki!) went down with a bad case last year when the frowning face of Galanthus elwseii ‘Grumpy’ took her fancy... 

Great British Life: A little clump of snowdrops makes a charming vignette A little clump of snowdrops makes a charming vignette (Image: Leigh Clapp)

Carolyn Millen’s top six snowdrops

Galanthus woronowii "Cider with Rosie" - tiny snowdrop at just 2 inches in height with shiny green leaves.

Galanthus elweseii "Natalie Garton" - a semi-double with lovely white flowers.

Galanthus "S Arnott" - An old variety, and considered one of the best. It grows to 15cm in height. Narrow grey-green leaves with fragrant white flowers featuring V shaped-green markings

Galanthus "X-Ray" - a good doer, for those who like their snowdrops without too many fancy markings!

Galanthus elwesii "Mrs Macnamara" - produces blooms early in the New Year The plant originated from Dylan Thomas's mother-in-law, Mrs McNamara.

Galanthus elwesii "Roger’s Rough" Named by Richard Bird for a snowdrop grown in his garden at Kilndown on the Kent/Sussex border. Attractive large elwesii flowers with long petals and a bold green mark on the inner segments.

Other snowdrops readily available: Marjorie Brown and Yvonne Hay, really strong varieties that according to Carolyn ‘simply can’t fail’.

[BOX OUT] Get the look

• Snowdrops look delicate but are mostly tough and easy to grow, especially the ones that naturalise in grass, the common, inexpensive ones – G. nivalis, single and doubles and G. elwesii

• For the best effect plant the common varieties en masse

• They prefer to grow in well-drained chalk and limestone soils, rich in leaf mould and organic matter, under the shade of deciduous trees and shrubs

• As with hellebores their little faces hang done so to fully admire them, especially the more expensive specimens, plant them in raised beds, in a wall or on a bank

• They spread by creating new bulbs within a clump and also further afield by seed

• Don’t let them dry out -once established there’s no maintenance required, and leave the foliage to die down naturally

• Every three and four years lift once the flowers begin to fade, divide clumps and re-plant to the same depth, to help them thrive and this is also the easiest way to propagate

• Snowdrops can be grown in containers as long as you don’t allow the soil to dry out in summer or the container to freeze

• Buying ‘in the green’ in spring is more expensive but generally the recommended way for success in establishing snowdrops

• Keep the expensive varieties for pots and beds to grow in clumps

Great British Life: Good companions: snowdrops with vibrant cornus stems Good companions: snowdrops with vibrant cornus stems (Image: Leigh Clapp)

Some planting ideas

• Snowdrops are natural companions with hellebores, crocuses, winter aconites, early iris, cyclamen, scilla

• Grow around the bases of a copse of silver birch for an all white display

• Contrast with black Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’

• Complement with fragrant shrubs such as daphne, honeysuckle, hamamelis and viburnum

• Grow in front of strands of golden bamboo or vibrant cornus or willow stems

Great British Life: Open through the NGS, The Old Rectory has naturalised snowdrops and named varieties Open through the NGS, The Old Rectory has naturalised snowdrops and named varieties (Image: Leigh Clapp)

Where to see snowdrops in Kent this year

Carolyn Millen’s garden will be open for the NGS on 21, 24, 28 January, 1 and 4 February. kentsnowdrops.com

Self-guided snowdrop walks at Hever Castle & Gardens will begin on Feb 7 2024 and run from 10:30 - 3pm daily (Last Exit 4.30PM). Snowdrop Walk is included in the garden ticket entry price. hevercastle.co.uk

Hole Park Garden will be open on Sunday Feb 11 for the Plant Fairs Roadshow winter fair, featuring snowdrop specialists keen to share their wonderful collections and to admire the snowdrops at Hole Park. holepark.com

Great Comp Garden will welcome Joe Sharman’s Monksilver Nursery and a host of specialist nurseries for its Snowdrop Sensation on Sunday Feb 18 greatcompgarden.co.uk

Other Kent Nsnowdrop gardens (for opening times see ngs.org.uk)

• Knowle Hill Farm, Ulcombe, ME17 1ES

Snowdrops and hellebores start the show in this classic country garden

Copton Ash and Nursery, Faversham, ME13 8XW

A plant lover’s garden with an array of woodland flowers, hellebores and snowdrops

• Doddington Place, ME9 0BB

Elegant and creative, inspiring in every season, beginning with early bulbs naturalised over many years

• The Old Rectory, Fawkham, DA3 8LX

Carpets of naturalised snowdrops from the past inspired an interest with many snowdrops added, along with bulbs, trees and perennials

• Fairseat Manor, Sevenoaks, TN15 7LU

New garden with the scheme, extensive spring bulbs with many varieties of snowdrops



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