Royal Paddocks Allotments website masthead
email icon

Any comments, ideas or suggestions for what you’d like to see on the website? Please email us.

Snowdrop Mania! And bees

Date posted: Sunday 10th February 2019

Snowdrop Mania!  And bees

I’ve been bitten by snowdrop mania! Well, not quite so extreme yet as spending up to £360 for a single bulb of ‘Green Tear’ but I did spend £10 on a ‘Nothing Special’ bulb, purely because of it’s modest, self-effacing name! It’s proved to be a nice little plant and has flowered dutifully for the past 2 years. Chelsea Physic Garden hold a Snowdrop Festival and some of the varieties are eye-wateringly pricey. The miniscule differences in varieties of Galanthus nivalis may be what attracts such interest, but for me it’s just that they are so delightful and early, and provide nourishment for the earliest bees that are out and about in the hellebores, snowdrops and earliest flowering bulbs.

It’s other common name, flower of hope, says it all! I’ve bought one called ‘Mrs Backhouse’, in memory of an old maths teacher, who taught us algebra – I didn’t understand a thing after the first lesson but she was a very kindly and benign teacher and I was never in the doghouse for my abject failures in her classes! Another recently purchased snowdrop bulb is ‘Green Teeth’, not the most attractive of names but an elegant specimen:

‘Understated they may be, but snowdrops have a very dedicated following. Record prices are being paid for single bulbs and a lucrative industry is developing to satisfy the demand of the growing number of galanthophiles – or snowdrop fanciers to the uninitiated. Not native to the UK, no-one can say for sure when snowdrops were brought into the country. But they became fashionable in the mid-19th Century when the small, white flower caught the eye of the Victorians. In recent years they have become something of a cult flower again. February is the month a lot of varieties flower in the UK and when things seriously kick off for galanthophiles. Every year there are an increasing number of snowdrop events and study days. Avon Bulbs, a specialist bulb growers and suppliers in Somerset, published its latest catalogue a few weeks ago. The 100 varieties on sale range from a few pounds to up to £60 for a bulb. Many have sold out already, says owner Chris Ireland-Jones. “I discovered there wasn’t just one kind of snowdrop and began planting other common varieties,” says Walker, who sells snowdrops at her own nursery Carolyn’s Shade Gardens. “That in turn evolved into collecting. The more you work with snowdrops, the more you appreciate the differences.”

Being a galanthophile from outside Europe, and a few other countries like Turkey, takes an extra level of devotion. In a lot of countries many varieties are not readily available. Snowdrops are covered by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (Cites). This happened after the mass exploitation of wild snowdrops in Turkey in the 1980s…. It covers all types and means to sell a single bulb you need a licence and the right documentation.’ (BBC News 2 Feb 2012)

‘Why would someone pay hundreds of pounds for one snowdrop bulb? I think I know. What makes snowdrop mania particularly strange is that, unlike gorgeous, colourful tulip flowers, the variations between snowdrops are almost too tiny to spot. I think I’m coming down with galanthomania. It’s a rare affliction, but one that’s hard to shake, and it’s affecting more people every year. Galanthus are snowdrops, and galanthomania is a 21st-century version of that 17th-century craze for tulips which began in the Dutch golden age. At the height of the tulip mania some bulbs were selling at 3,000 or 4,000 florins, almost ten times a craftsman’s annual wage. Snowdrop bulbs aren’t there yet, but collectors spend hundreds of pounds on some rare bulbs, and seed company Thompson and Morgan broke records in 2012 by paying £725 for a single specimen. This rare flower, Galanthus woronowii ‘Elizabeth Harrison’, has yellow ovaries and yellow markings on its white petals, and was a significant increase on the previous record of £360 for a variety called ‘Green Tear’. This week G. plicatus ‘Bryan Hewitt’, a pure white cup-shaped snowdrop grown in the Netherlands, sold for £133 on eBay and, though I didn’t bid, I felt a pang of envy. The auction site lists dozens of other single bulbs at prices that could buy you a mature tree.
There’s some logic to spending so much. A skilled horticulturalist can take one bulb and turn it into many more plants. Other galanthophiles will pay dearly for rare bulbs, even though these are not the easiest plants to establish, and the demand means constant vigilance. At Sir Harold Hillier Gardens in Hampshire, the plants are locked in alarmed greenhouses when not in flower, and displayed under guard when in bloom. What makes snowdrop mania particularly strange is that unlike tulips, the variations between snowdrops are tricky for a layman to spot. The only really remarkable mutation is one where the ovaries and small markings on the petals are bright yellow rather than green. Other than that, a rare snowdrop looks like a common one: it has green strap-like leaves and white petals that hang down from an arching stem. Why collect something you need to lie flat on your belly to appreciate, especially when it flowers in winter?’ (Isobel Hardman, Spectator: Features 31 January 2015)

I went a kokedama workshop at Chelsea Physic Garden where we used snowdrops in the Japanese art of making moss ball planters: ‘the practice of taking the root ball of a plant and suspending it in a mud ball, which is then coated with moss. It is a living planter as well as a distinctive display piece. They may be fixed to a piece of driftwood or bark, suspended from a string or nestled in a clear, attractive container. Hanging many of these as a Kokedama moss garden is called a string garden.’ This is the one I made earlier!:

A greater spotted woodpecker was hammering away at a large branch stump on the other side of the park wall a couple of weeks ago, on 24 January. It seemed rather early but possibly it was a juvenile practising his courtship moves!