A sprinkling of spring

The appearance of snowdrops give us a foretaste of warmer days to come, but that’s not the only reason this dainty flower lifts the spirits

 Galanthus ‘Castlegar’ at Altamont Gardens in Co Carlow. Photograph: Richard Johnston

Galanthus ‘Castlegar’ at Altamont Gardens in Co Carlow. Photograph: Richard Johnston


Rough guide to growing snowdrops on page 2 >>

I spotted my very first snowdrops of 2014 last week. A sprinkle of tiny flowers as white as pearls, grown from a handful of bulbs I’d been given as a present last autumn and which I’d planted in a desperate, last-minute rush. Galanthus elwesii, according to my scribbled notes.

It’s a large-flowering species of snowdrop native to Turkey, named after the famous galanthophile and impressively-moustachioed British botanist and naturalist, Henry Elwes, who collected the plant in the wild back in 1874. Some 140 years after Elwes’ fortuitous trip to Izmir, I’m now wondering at the convoluted path that led to these snowdrops flowering in the cold soil of a mountainous Wicklow garden, almost 2,000 miles from their homeland.

Just as we all look the way we do as the result of a complex genetic lineage that wends its way back through countless generations, the product of a thousand and one chance events, so too does the snowdrop. It’s a promiscuous genus, too, made more so by the fact that it’s so beautiful gardeners have long kept a beady eye on it, watching and waiting for any especially lovely progeny to appear.

Henry Elwes wasn’t the only Victorian to be captivated by the snowdrop on his travels abroad. Before him, Irish soldiers, including one Major-General Eyre Challoner Henry Massey, had brought bulbs back from the battlefields of the Crimean War and planted them in their Irish gardens.

In the case of Massey, the result was the celebrated Irish snowdrop, Galanthus plicatus ‘Straffan’. But other Irish gardeners were also busily selecting individual plants for a multitude of tiny but important details. Some were formally named and their lineage carefully recorded, while the history of others remains tantalisingly elusive, despite the fact that they were passed on from one generation to another,

We know that a Tipperary garden gave us the daintily ruffled, double snowdrop, Galanthus ‘Hill Poe’, while a Galway garden gave us Galanthus ‘Castlegar’, where it was discovered by the late Irish horticultural scientist Keith Lamb.

As for Galanthus elwesii ‘Skyward’, it arrived as one in a basketful of several different snowdrops given to the Irish gardener and galanthophile Corona North – by then on her deathbed – as a gift from another Irish gardener, Assumpta Broomfield. Broomfield got it from the Dublin garden of Helen Dillon, who can’t recall exactly where it came from. But after North’s death, this snowdrop was planted in her gardens at Altamont by head gardener Paul Cutler, who eventually christened it ‘Skyward’ on account of its unusual height. It grows there still, along with lots of other rare and unusual snowdrops, many tended by Cutler in the now-OPW-managed gardens and others by nurseryman Robert Miller in the separate nursery contained within Altamont’s walled garden.

Paul Cutler, Robert Miller and Assumpta Broomfield could all be described as protégées of Corona North, who instilled in all three gardeners a deep and passionate interest in snowdrops. In Cutler’s case, it has led to the continuing evolution of the famous snowdrop collection at Altamont, a collection that draws many visitors to the gardens each spring, especially during snowdrop week.

In Miller’s case, it has led to the successful establishment (with Cork gardener Hester Forde) of Ireland’s annual Snowdrop Gala, an event that attracts gardeners from all over the country. In Broomfield’s case, it’s led to a painstaking exploration of the provenance of Irish snowdrops and their intriguingly complicated, sometimes contradictory, oral and written history.

This careful research is being carried out with fellow Irish galanthophile Angela Jupe, whose own gardens at Bellefield House in Co Offaly are home to over 200 different varieties.

The result of their endeavours is another uniquely Irish event, to be held next month, which aims to gather together the delicate threads of Irish gardening history by formally naming more than a dozen Irish snowdrops, some for the very first time. All, say Broomfield and Jupe, are plants of great garden merit.

It’s going to be a roll call of honour; Galanthus ‘Keith Lamb. Galanthus ‘Hugo Purdue’. Galanthus ‘May Jupe’. Galanthus ‘Hill View’. Galanthus ‘Catherine McAuley’. Galanthus ‘Barnhill’. And, hopefully, Galanthus ‘Corona North’.

For details of the Snowdrop Gala (February 1st) and A Celebration of Irish Snowdrops (February 15th), as well as other snowdrop events and suppliers, see irishsnowdrops.org.

Altamont’s snowdrop week runs from February 10th-16th. See
carlowtourism.com for details.


These hardy, bulbous plants grow best in light shade, in humus-rich, slightly alkaline soils that are damp but free-draining. If your soil is light and dry, enrich it with leaf mould (not manure) before planting, while if it’s prone to water-logging, add plenty of coarse garden grit. Avoid growing snowdrops in containers outdoors, unless you’re prepared to mollycoddle them.

Best time to plant?
While gardeners have traditionally been advised to divide and replant snowdrops ‘in the green’ (just as the flowers have faded), it’s now deemed best to wait until early summer, when the foliage is beginning to yellow and the bulbs have had a chance to fatten up.

If a gardening friend proffers the gift of a freshly lifted clump of snowdrops ‘in the green’ this spring, plant them quickly, label them and give them a good watering. Dormant bulbs are also offered for sale in autumn; only buy if they look plump and healthy.

Grow snowdrops along the edges of pathways, on sloping banks, in flower borders, in grass (don’t mow until their foliage has completely died down), or beneath deciduous shrubs and trees. In particular, try growing them beneath early-flowering shrubs such as the scented, spidery witch-hazels, or trees with interesting branch or bark detail including the snowy-limbed Himalayan birch, colourful dogwoods or the glossy trunked, Prunus serrula.

Those honey-scented, dainty flowers look great growing en-masse, or as part of a quilt of low-growing, shade-tolerant bulbs, tubers and corms. This could include the silvery-leafed, pink-flowered Cyclamen coum, pale blue scillas, golden-flowered winter aconites starry wood anemones, miniature narcissi, lilac Crocus tommasinianus, and the marbled-leafed Arum italicum ‘Marmoratum’, as well as perennial woodlanders such as hellebores.

Most of these plants, including snowdrops, are also a valuable early source of nectar for bumblebees emerging from hibernation.

Dos and don’ts?
Avoid planting close to the root systems of vigorous, spreading plants, underneath dense evergreens, in very wet soil, or in any place where the soil nearby will be disturbed by regular cultivation. Some are more vigorous and easier to establish than others; Galanthus nivalis will colonise rough grass, while G ‘Arnott’ is prized for its ability to quickly clump-up. You can have a succession of different varieties in flower from December/early January (‘Castlegar’, ‘Mrs Macnamara’) through February (Galanthus plicatus ‘Straffan’, ‘Hill Poe’, Galanthus nivalis) and well into March (‘S Arnott’, ‘Skyward’). Divide well-established clumps every three years and ‘spread the love’ by giving a few bulbs away.

In the garden this week: Feed birds, order seeds and seed potatoes while stocks are still high, plant new fruit bushes and trees, prune established fruit bushes/trees.

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