A delicate beauty
Snowdrops have drawn huge interest in recent years with the discovery of hundreds of new hybrids, writes FIONNUALA FALLON
Their snow-white flowers are the ghostly, graceful harbingers of spring, botanical miniatures whose shy beauty has brought generations of gardeners – literally – to their knees.
For Dr John Grimshaw, the British botanist, all-round-plantsman and co-author of the definitive guide Snowdrops: A Monograph of Cultivated Galanthus, his long love affair with these bulbous plants first began at the tender age of five when his family moved house. The Grimshaw’s new garden in Maidenhead, Berkshire came with a well-established patch of Galanthus nivalis ‘Flore Pleno’, the common double snowdrop whose tightly ruffled and ornately marked inner tepals resemble a tiny tutu.
“It became a yearly ritual, that trip to the bottom of the garden to see how they were doing.” Later, as a young Oxford undergraduate (where he gained a first-class degree in Botany), Grimshaw was introduced to the “old school of galanthophiles”, a distinguished group of plantspeople that included the botanists Richard Nutt and Primrose Warburg. Soon he was being invited to their snowdrop lunches, convivial occasions where a small but dedicated group of fellow enthusiasts swapped information and plants. “It was a hell of an education,” he remembers.
“But back then it was a gentleman’s hobby, no money exchanged hands. So while I’m very glad that a lot of people have become interested in snowdrops in recent years, I rather regret the fact that so often it’s meant putting a price on them.”
Grimshaw, as he points out himself, indirectly shares some of the blame for this. The book that he co-authored with fellow British galanthophiles Matt Bishop and Aaron Davis and which was published in 2002, formally codified, for the first time, a vast body of information on the subject. “We brought together a lot of ‘floating’ information which finally made it possible for gardeners to check facts. As a result, you often hear the book referred to as the galanthophile’s bible.”
At present, he’s working on a sequel due for publication in 2015. While the first book covered almost 500 snowdrop hybrids and cultivars, the second will profile roughly three times that number, a measure of how the mania for collecting has resulted in the introduction of so many new snowdrops.
“Writing the second book has meant playing what sometimes feels like a never-ending game of catch-up. We’re plagued by new names, some of snowdrops that really aren’t all that interesting, given by gardeners who haven’t been discriminating or selective enough. All snowdrops are pretty flowers, but some are better left in the hedge than brought into the garden.”