Searching for snowdrops
PUBLISHED: 09:40 10 February 2015 | UPDATED: 09:40 10 February 2015
In the dark, cold winter days of February, the welcome appearance of snowdops means spring is not far away. Philippa Pearson looks at their history and finds the best places in the county to see them
The snowdrop in purest white array, First rears her head on Candlemas Day’. This description of snowdrops from an early book on church flowers highlights one of the most welcome sights in winter. At a lean time in the gardening calendar, snowdrops remain in bloom for up to a month and today there are varieties that appear from October to March.
Religious symbol The status of these fascinating bulbs has reached manic proportions, such is the interest in them among collectors, or galanthophiles as they are known. But it’s not just in recent times that snowdrops have captivated the eye of the beholder. Monks dedicated the white flowers to the Virgin Mary as snowdrops bloomed at the time she took baby Jesus to the Temple in Jerusalem for the Jewish ritual of purification after childbirth and redemption of the first-born son. At the Feast of Purification (or Candlemas) on February 2, which celebrates the event, snowdrops were strewn on the altar.
Snowdrops were once known as Candlemas bells. Other names given to them include fair maids of February, French snowdrop, purification flower, snow flower and white ladies. The name snowdrop is thought to have derived from a popular earring style of the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe, particularly in Germany. The main snowdrop variety is galanthus nivalis, which translates from its Greek and Latin roots as snowy milkblossom.
The traditional planting time for all snowdrops is ‘in the green’, just after they have finished flowering. Snowdrops hate being left to dry out and don’t establish very successfully as dry bulbs. Dig up clumps soon after flowering while still in leaf; the very fact of moving them increases the stock immediately.
Like most bulbs, don’t plant singularly, but in groups of at least five or more and choose a light shady area under trees or shrubs. Plant in soil that reflects snowdrops’ natural woodland habitat, adding composted leaf mould or organic matter if necessary to the planting site.
The famous snowdrop collection in Cambridgeshire at Anglesey Abbey Gardens was discovered by chance after Dutch Elm Disease hit the estate in the 1970s. Thousands of mature elms across 98 acres of garden were lost and while clearing trees in an area once used by the Victorians to dump their kitchen and garden refuse gardeners noticed that many snowdrop bulbs had also been dumped there. Fifteen varieties of snowdrop were discovered, including one much admired by visitors, galanthus elwesii, ‘Lode Star’. The gardens are now carpeted in winter with more than 320 different varieties of snowdrop.
Snowdrop hunting in Herts
Many gardens across the county have special opening times to view snowdrops. See websites for admission charges.
Benington Lordship, Benington
Open daily from Feb 7 to March 1, 12-4pm.
The beautiful gardens are carpeted in a spectacular display of snowdrops around the folly, ruined Norman castle keep and surrounding moat. The renowned collection of rare and unusual snowdrops has been built up over the years and many can be seen growing in the borders and in the walled kitchen garden there’s a special labelled collection. Guided walks are on Mondays and Wednesdays at 2pm. Tickets sold on the day. Refreshments. Snowdrops and hellebores for sale. ‘Snowdrop concerts’ in the nearby church at weekends. Call 08701 261709.
Walkern Hall, Walkern
Open for the National Garden Scheme on February 7-8, 12–4.30pm. Homemade soup and teas available. Call 01438 869346.
Old Church Cottage, Long Marston
A galanphophile’s treat with many varieties of snowdrops and other winter flowering bulbs. Open for the National Garden Scheme on February 14-15, 11–3pm. Refreshments include mulled wine and homemade muffins.
Snowdrop Walk, St Albans
The website Walk-Talk (walk-talk.co.uk/SNOW.htm) has a lovely illustrated walk near St Albans that takes ramblers into woodland where masses of snowdrops can be seen growing in the wild. The walk has a short route (2¼ miles) or a long route (4 miles) and starts at the Cross Keys pub between Wheathampstead and Kimpton before going through Lamer Park and by Bride Hall. Print off the walk from the website – it comes with a map, directions and photographs. Wear wellies or proper walking boots.
Anglesey Abbey, Lode
Open from January 26 to March 1 for the snowdrop season. Just outside the county in Cambridgeshire, but well worth visiting. Weekdays are quieter. Refreshments available. Call 01223 810080.