Gardens

A growing passion

As galanthus enthusiasts look forward to winter’s glorious carpet of snowy blooms, prices for rare varieties are heading skywards, says Simon de Burton.

December 03 2010
Simon de Burton

Even the more green-fingered of readers probably haven’t heard of Edward Augustus Bowles, known to his friends as Gussie. He was born at Myddelton House in Enfield, Middlesex, in May 1865 and went up to Cambridge as a young man to study for the priesthood.

But Gussie’s vocation was cut short by his decision to return home to care for his brother and sister, who were dying of consumption. In his spare time, he set about creating a garden in the eight acres of parkland that surrounded Myddelton and where, he wrote, his great-grandmother had planted specimen trees such as a Swamp Cypress – while subsequent generations had merely contributed “arboreal garroters such as sycamore and horse chestnut”, which he “determined to eliminate”.

Blessed with a private income from his ancestor’s shrewd investments in the New River Company (the firm behind the canal that brought fresh water into London from Ware), Gussie was able to dedicate his life to plants and, despite being self-taught, ended up as vice-president of the Royal Horticultural Society from 1926 until his death in 1954, just a week short of his 89th birthday. More than 300 people attended his funeral and saw his ashes scattered in the garden at Myddelton, which – after almost seven decades of Gussie’s attention – had been transformed with a vast array of strange and rare plants that attracted visitors from far and wide. His other legacies included half-a-dozen seminal tomes on various areas of horticulture – all of which he illustrated himself – plus another, published posthumously in 1956, entitled Garden Varieties of Galanthus.

Galanthus translates directly from the Greek as meaning “milk flower”, but this genus of around 20 species of plants and their 700-odd cultivated varieties is better known as the snowdrop. It was one of Gussie’s favourites, and he even coined the now officially recognised term “galanthophile” to describe snowdrop obsessives such as himself.

Little could he have known that the fascination with snowdrops that was then confined to a few dedicated botanists and the occasional amateur gardener would, in the 21st century, become a worldwide horticultural (and financial) phenomenon – or that precisely half a century after his death, Gussie’s very own garden would yield an entirely new and valuable galanthus cultivar. The story goes that a plantsman called Mike Myers was walking through the garden at Myddelton as a visitor in 2004 when he spotted a snowdrop that was somehow different.

Myddelton’s head gardener, Andrew Turvey, explains: “I would say that as much as 60-70 per cent of the garden beds are covered by tens of thousands of snowdrops at this time of the year, but Mr Myers somehow spotted one that he believed was previously unknown. He drew it to our attention and he was absolutely right. Now officially called Galanthus plicatus EA Bowles, it is distinctive in having a large, bulbous flower with six outer petals of precisely equal length and no green markings. It is unique among snowdrops.”

Those who believe that old gardeners never die but just “spade away”, as the tired joke goes, might be inclined to think that Gussie has been working from beyond the grave, because it could hardly have been a better time for a new variety to have been discovered – prices for the most sought-after snowdrop bulbs are currently going through the roof, with the record standing at £265 for a single bulb of G nivalis Flocon de Neige that was bought via the internet in 2008.

The freshly discovered Galanthus plicatus EA Bowles was given to snowdrop genius Joe Sharman, owner of Monksilver Nursery in Cottenham, Cambridgeshire, to “multiply” in order to make the variety commercially available, and the few bulbs that have so far been produced from it are now worth around £150 each. As a result, Turvey is keeping mum regarding the location of the example that still resides among its less exotic brethren somewhere in the grounds of Myddelton.

“In years gone by it was quite common for the head gardeners here to give away plants and bulbs, but now that certain snowdrops have become so valuable we have to be extremely careful not to give anything away at all,” he says. “We have sold 19 examples of the EA Bowles this year, all cultivated by Joe Sharman, and that has provided us with a significant income to help with the maintenance of the garden as a whole.”

When he’s not growing, multiplying and studying snowdrops, Sharman organises the International Galanthus Gala that has taken place in a different location in the UK each February (at the height of the flowering season) since 1997. The original Galanthus Gala was staged to give a small number of enthusiasts the chance to get together and discuss their passion. It quickly grew into an event that now attracts connoisseurs from Europe, the US and even Japan.

The furnace of Galanthus fever was further stoked in 2001 when Matt Bishop, head gardener at the acclaimed Garden House in Buckland Monachorum, Devon, co-authored with John Grimshaw and Aaron P Davis the 370-page Snowdrops: A Monograph of Cultivated Galanthus (Griffin Press, £45), regarded as the definitive reference work for the genus, describing and identifying both wild species and cultivars.

“The combination of the Galanthus Gala and the book really seemed to stimulate interest in the genus and today the mania for snowdrops is greater than ever,” says Bishop.

“Prices inevitably rise when there is that much enthusiasm for something, and it tends to be the newest and rarest cultivars that command the most. Once they have been cultivated and become readily available the price drops to more affordable levels and the money moves on to the latest discovery. When the Primrose Warburg variety first appeared around a decade ago, for example, bulbs were changing hands for £25 each. They now sell for around £12.50.”

One of the most sought-after “findlings” (a naturally occurring variety found by chance) is currently the Galanthus elwesii Anglesey Orange Tip, which is described by John Grimshaw, gardens manager at Colesbourne Park in Gloucestershire, as “the sensation of the year in the snowdrop community”. Revered for being “the richest-coloured of any orange snowdrop to date”, the orange tip appears not to lose its delicate hue like the original “orange” snowdrop, the Joy Cozens. Only a few bulbs exist, and they are under guard at Anglesey Abbey, Cambridgeshire, where the variety was discovered.

With so many species and all those hundreds of varieties in existence, there is clearly a great deal to learn about snowdrops – which is why Bishop has organised a study day for enthusiasts at The Garden House, at which top speakers will deliver lectures with titles ranging from “Recent Cultivar Developments” to the decidedly arcane “A Closer Look at Caucasian Snowdrop Taxonomy”.

Unusually, snowdrop bulbs are best sold “in the green” (when in flower) and rare varieties don’t appear in commercial growers’ catalogues. Unusual snowdrop cultivars tend to get passed around trusted friends, and are often “twin scaled” – an intensive, specialised and long-term propagation process, which explains why some of the newest cultivars are quite high in price. Such trading used to be a straightforward matter of enthusiasts swapping between themselves to enhance their collections and add to the number of varieties. But now international interest and the fact that German and Dutch buyers flock to Britain during the snowdrop season to buy bulbs means that “swapsies” is becoming a more closely guarded activity among an inner circle. The advent of online trading means some enthusiasts now put rare snowdrop cultivars up for sale on eBay; income from such sales has increased dramatically in recent years.

“Everyone knows that the best way to keep a plant alive is to share it. But things have changed,” says Sharman. “There are people who are rather rabidly commercial and the prices just seem to keep going up and up. But unlike orchids, which are both expensive to buy and to keep, snowdrops encompass everyone. They are tenacious and strong and, as the first bloom in October and the last ones in May, they mark both the beginning of winter and the end.”

See also

Plants