The spectacular display of snowdrops at Colesbourne Park
- Credit: Mandy Bradshaw
There’s nothing quite like the winter display at Colesbourne Park.
There is an argument that snowdrops grab more attention than they deserve because they flower when little else is around. Yet, stand in Colesbourne Park on a crisp winter day and you can forgive them hogging the limelight.
Thousands of blooms, so tightly packed they form a single sheet of white, spread through woodland, here and there thrown into startling relief by the shocking pink of cyclamen, or the turquoise blue water of Colesbourne’s unusual lake.
‘The white and deep cerise is a life-enhancing treat,’ comments Carolyn Elwes, who lives at Colesbourne with her husband Sir Henry. ‘You come around a corner and your heart lifts to see such a beautiful combination.’
Snowdrop gardens tend to fall into two categories: those that rely on sheer flower numbers to make an impact and gardens that specialise in the rarities that get galanthophiles’ hearts racing – galanthophiles is the name given to growers so passionate about snowdrops they will travel miles to see them and spend a fortune on bulbs.
Colesbourne neatly spans the two groups. It does have mass plantings of bulbs that impress simply by their scale but it also has many unusual varieties that make it a venue for snowdrop workshops and specialist guided tours.
Although the first snowdrops at the garden date back to Sir Henry’s great grandfather the Victorian plant collector Henry John Elwes – he discovered Galanthus elwesii, which bears his name – the current collection is more recent.
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Lady Elwes was introduced to snowdrop collecting by her cousin Mary Biddulph of nearby Rodmarton Manor, and noted galanthophile Primrose Warburg, while another leading snowdrop expert, Richard Nutt, educated her about what was growing unnoticed at Colesbourne.
‘He was the one who said ‘Oh, you’ve got this’, and ‘You’ve got that’, and ‘You must rescue these’,’ she recalls.
A young family meant work on the snowdrops – including digging up barrow-loads of starving bulbs that hadn’t been touched for years– didn’t happen for some time although Lady Elwes did start attending snowdrop lunches, gatherings of galanthophiles to discuss and swap snowdrops.
‘They were eyeopeners in more ways than one. You might come away frozen but you came away with a snowdrop, so it was always worth it.’
While Sir Henry never buys bulbs, Lady Elwes, a true galanthoholic, is sometimes unable to resist the odd investment although they have to be significantly different to those already in the collection. They also add new varieties through the swapping of bulbs that still goes on among collectors.
When they started clearing the overgrown garden and uncovering the snowdrops, they discovered around a dozen varieties. Today they have more than 250, including some that have been discovered at Colesbourne. These include the unusual yellow snowdrop, ‘Carolyn Elwes’, ‘George Proverbs’, named for a much-respected former gamekeeper on the estate, and ‘Lord Lieutenant’, a very upright snowdrop that looks as though it’s standing to attention.
‘We’ve probably identified a dozen hybrids ourselves,’ says Sir Henry. They’ve simply arisen because we’ve planted more and more snowdrops and the bees have been busier and busier.’
Snowdrops are notoriously promiscuous and will hybridise easily, something that has led to confusion over names with the same snowdrop being given different names by growers, or plants being named that are really very similar to varieties already grown.
All the snowdrops at Colesbourne are labelled, making identification easy for those without expert knowledge and allowing them to identify snowdrops in their own garden.
The couple’s son, Freddy, believes it’s the range of varieties that makes Colesbourne stand out among the many snowdrop gardens in the area.
‘A lot of gardens locally have a lot of snowdrops but it’s generally only one or two varieties,’ he says.
Since the collection began, two or three new species have been discovered in Russia and the Balkans but there are no plans to have them at Colesbourne as plants in circulation have been dug up in the wild.
‘Every single one has been got by stealing and I don’t want to be involved with that,’ says Lady Elwes. ‘It is quite exciting that new species are being discovered.’
The more unusual varieties at Colesbourne are grown in raised beds near the house where they can be cossetted and seen more easily.
Others are in the Spring Garden, created a few years ago from what had been an area of overgrown yews. Bark chip paths wind through borders that are filled not only with snowdrops but with other early flowers such as hellebores, cyclamen and winter aconites, all set off by a dark mulch. Along with early flowering shrubs, including prunus, winter honeysuckle and daphne, they show how snowdrops can be used in a mixed scheme.
The woodland is where the mass displays are found with drifts of ‘Ophelia’, one of the Greatorex doubles’, ‘Colossus’, a large and early snowdrop, and ‘Atkinsii’, discovered at Painswick in Gloucestershire.
Colesbourne is also known for its massed planting of ‘S Arnott’, which has been increased this season by another 1,000 bulbs, making it one of the largest displays of this variety in cultivation. It’s a vigorous snowdrop, known for its honey scent.
Congested clumps are noted during the growing season and marked with a yellow stick while white sticks pinpoint gaps in the display. Over summer, while the bulbs are dormant, clumps are dug up, divided and the best bulbs replanted.
Then comes the anxious wait to see what has survived and which snowdrop will be first to flower, usually G. reginae-olgae at the end of October, followed by early varieties such as ‘Haydn’, ‘Three Ships’, ‘Mrs Macnamara’ and ‘Colossus’, which are all out in time for Christmas.
‘We visit them practically every day,’ says Lady Elwes, ‘and first you see their nose coming up and then you see a faint green tinge.’
The main display is from late January and the weather plays a huge part in whether the snowdrops will be at their best for the garden’s open days in February.
‘They are so temperamental, and they don’t do what you expect them to. They’re different every year,’ says Lady Elwes. ‘January is a time of enormous expectation and terror.’
Last year, Colesbourne opened during lockdown for local exercise and was discovered by many for the first time.
‘We attracted a completely new audience who weren’t necessarily that interested in snowdrops but they wanted to get out of the house,’ says Freddy ‘They were generally a much younger audience who wanted somewhere nice to walk and had heard about us but never been before.’
Perhaps a new generation of galanthophiles has been recruited.
Colesbourne Park is open every Saturday and Sunday from January 29 to February 27. Gates open at 1pm. Entry is £9. Children and dogs, on leads, enter free of charge. More information on the website: www.colesbournegardens.org.uk