One of the highlights for the Garden Guides early in the flowering year is to take a group of visitors on a Snowdrop Tour. Early signs of Spring are all around, but snowdrops take centre stage. We will look closely at the much loved Common Snowdrop Galanthus nivalis before finding other species and hybrids around the Garden. As we walk we will share folklore and legends, tales of discoveries in medicine, stories of adventurous collectors, botanists and hybridists. By the end of the tour everyone has a rough idea of snowdrop structure, looks carefully at every bloom we pass, knows the names of a few easy-to-grow varieties and is well on the way to becoming a true Galanthophile, obsessed with and possessed by love of snowdrops.
Common Snowdrop G.nivalis is not a true British native but has spread northwards from its Mediterranean stronghold. Gerard notes it in London gardens in his Herball of 1597 as ‘a Leucojum or timely flowr’ing bulbus Violet’. During the following century snowdrops spread freely and were enthusiastically planted by gardeners appreciating their massed effect as much as their singular delicate beauty. In the eighteenth century nurserymen met the demand for mass planting supplying many great estates with bulbs by the hundreds. Carl Linnaeus in 1753 assigned snowdrops to their own genus Galanthus.
Enthusiasm for snowdrops surged in the mid-nineteenth century. Soldiers returning from the Crimean War brought home bulbs of the snowdrops that had sprung up all around their dugouts, so welcome after the harsh winters. The Crimean Snowdrop was hailed as a novelty, but was already known to botanists. RBGE’s Garden Superintendent James McNab remarked when seeing the first flowering of the Crimean Snowdrops here, ‘Why, this is the old Galanthus plicatus’. It is widespread today and a parent of many fine hybrids as is G. elwesii a large, broad leaved, distinctively marked snowdrop found in Turkey by Henry Elwes, an enthusiastic collector. Today there are thousands of varieties and hybrids available.
The best place to start this love affair is by looking at the beautiful carpet of snowdrops on the south side of the John Hope Gateway. Here single and double forms of G.nivalis flourish. In February 2017 we were walking past the swathes of flowers when something different caught my eye among the white and green. I was looking at what appeared to be a clump with all white flowers. I took a quick closer look, pointed it out to the group as I took a picture of the nearest tree label, casually placed a few sticks around the clump and carried on with the tour, secretly rather pleased with myself. I reported my find and location to the Alpine House team. The following day six bulbs were potted up, and have been growing on well.
The form of G. nivalis I found is known as poculiformis. It was first discovered among the large naturalised plantings at Dunrobin Castle by the head gardener James Melville and presented at the first RHS Snowdrop Conference in 1891. Others have been found elsewhere and several are in cultivation. G.nivalis ‘Anglesey Abbey’ can often be poculiform.
Poculiformis means in the form of a little cup, best visualised as a cup or goblet turned over on its rim. The flower has no inner segments but a double row of outer segments ideally of equal length. Petals can have green markings to a greater or lesser degree, especially in young bulbs . My find has no green markings, and can be seen in all its white beauty in the Alpine House when in bloom. I felt like a real plant hunter when Accession Number 20170225 was assigned to ‘my’ snowdrop.
This blog was originally written by Garden Guide Jane Freshwater in 2021.
For more information on our 2023 Snowdrop Tours visit www.rbge.org.uk/snowdrops
References and Further Reading:
RBGE Living Collection Catalogue Accession Number of Galanthus nivalis poculiformis : 20170225
The Genus Galanthus. Aaron P Davis 1999
Snowdrops – A Monograph of Cultivated Galanthus. Matt Bishop Aaron Davis John Grimshaw 2001, 2006
A Gardener’s Guide to Snowdrops. Freda Cox 2019
Snowdrop.Gail Harland 2016
Snowdrops. Gunter Waldorf 2011
The Plant-lover’s Guide to Snowdrops. Naomi Slade 2014
The Galanthophiles. Jane Kilpatrick Jennifer Harper 2018