Snowdrop spotting in Hertfordshire

PUBLISHED: 14:55 15 February 2010 | UPDATED: 11:39 28 February 2013

Snowdrops at Benington Lordship

Snowdrops at Benington Lordship

After the long, cold winter months, the site of snowdrops blooming in February means spring is not far away. Philippa Pearson looks at their history and finds the best places in Hertfordshire 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 welcoming sights in late winter. At a lean time in the gardening calendar, snowdrops remain in bloom for up to a month with varieties spanning October to March. Snowdrops have an addictive quality and a couple of hours on a sunny winter's day are all they need to work their charm on you.

The traditional planting time for all snowdrops is 'in the green', just after they have finished flowering

The status of these fascinating bulbs has reached manic proportions, such is the interest in them amongst collectors, or Galanthophiles, 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 the child Jesus to the Temple. At the Feast of Purification, snowdrops were strewn on the altar: another association with this date, February 2, is Candlemas Day. Snowdrops were once known as Candlemas Bells as they traditionally came into flower around then. Other names given to snowdrops include Fair Maids of February, French Snowdrop, Purification Flower, Snow-flower and White Ladies. The name snowdrop came from a popular earring style of the 16th and 17th centuries in Europe, particularly in Germany.
The main snowdrop variety is Galanthus nivalis, a name which translates from its Greek and Latin roots as 'Snowy Milkblossom', and 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 whilst still in leaf and the very fact of moving them increases the stock immediately. Like most bulbs, don't plant singularly, but in groups of at least three, five or more and choose light shady areas under trees or shrubs in soil that reflects their natural woodland habitat, adding composted leaf mould or organic matter if necessary to the planting site.

Snowdrops can be quite promiscuous but it's this natural crossing of different types that leads to new and exciting cultivars being produced. The famous snowdrop collection over the border in Cambridgeshire at Anglesey Abbey Gardens was discovered by chance after Dutch Elm Disease hit the estate. More than 4,000 mature elms across 98 acres of garden were lost and whilst clearing trees in an area once used by the Victorians to dump their kitchen and garden refuse, gardeners noticed that many snowdrop bulbs had been dumped there, too. Fifteen varieties of snowdrop were discovered including one much admired by visitors, Galanthus elwesii 'Lode Star'.

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