Norfolk gardens that can’t get enough of snowdrops

Snowdrops at Chestnut Farm, West Beckham

Snowdrops at Chestnut Farm, West Beckham - Credit: Colin Finch

A tiny pale green smudge on a snowdrop petal could be the start of a whole new flowery fascination for a galanthophile. ROWAN MANTELL finds out more about Norfolk's snowdrop lovers.

Drifts of snowdrops, sparkling through winter woodland, are one of the wonders of February.

But for some people there is so much more to the delicate flowers, piercing frozen earth, than a pretty picture heralding the arrival of spring.

For a galanthophile, the simple snowdrop is an almost endlessly fascinating subject.

There are around 2,000 different types of snowdrop, or galanthus, and a true galanthophile will be able to distinguish between the dark green inners of the galanthus Alison Hilary and the distinctive long pedicel (stalklet) of the galunthus magnet.

There are snowdrop clubs and snowdrop societies and some commentators have begun comparing the steadily increasing price of rare and sought-after bulbs with the Dutch tulip frenzy of the 17th century.

Here in Norfolk we might not have obsessive money-no-object collectors, but there are plenty of people who are passionate about the diminutive bulb of the galunthus.

Most Read

Norfolk has a wealth of snowdrops, and this is believed to be partly because of the number of country estates which cover the county. In the mid 19th century many of the young men of the manors and halls of the landed gentry found themselves fighting in the rugged hills of modern-day Ukraine, as the British, French, Ottoman and Russian empires clashed in the Crimean War.

Snowdrops grew wild near the terrible battlegrounds of the Crimean pensinsula and soldiers collected bulbs to bring home, partly because of their fragile beauty amongst so much hardship, and perhaps partly to remember fallen comrades, because they are frequently found in English country churchyards, as well as in the gardens of our great houses.

Another theory about snowdrops found near churches is that they were planted centuries ago, by monks, as symbols of purity and renewal.

When Judy and John McNeil-Wilson moved to Chestnut Farm, West Beckham, 50 years ago, they were delighted to see snowdrop shoots emerge through the winter, but, for 30 years, they were a picturesque early-spring extra, rather than a main focus of the garden.

'They were small, single and quite short,' said Judy.

But in 1995 the couple decided to join the Snowdrop Group of the Cottage Garden Society, and quickly discovered a whole new world of snowdrops.

'In the early years life was taken up with family, and then developing the garden,' said Judy. 'But I have always liked snowdrops, as something else to enjoy in the winter garden, and as true harbingers of spring.'

Now, their initial snowdrops have been joined by around 80 more varieties, with drifts of more common types, interspersed with blocks of particularly interesting flowers.

Judy began with 200 bulbs, ordered from the nearby Walsingham Estate, and planted under the chestnut trees in front of the farmhouse.

'Since then they have multiplied and clumps have been lifted and separated each spring and spread around the garden,' she said.

However, Judy said that she was quite picky about her petals. 'Unless there is a radical difference in the plant I no longer like to collect it,' she said. 'Every year I say no more, but inevitably something special turns up and I weaken! But it has to be a worthy plant and not just a new name.

'It would be very difficult to pick out a favourite, but some of the newer varieties with different shaped petals are most exciting,' she said.

'On principle I don't buy 'names,' but, living only a mile from Sheringham Park, I could not resist Upcher, a really fine variety of snowdrop.' It was named for the family which owned Sheringham Hall, and Upcher snowdrops can still be seen at lovely Sheringham Park.

'Later I was able to exchange some Galanthus woronowii for a clump of promising looking snowdrops in Sheringham Park, and these have turned out to be a very vigorous and strong clone that grows and increases well, so it has been possible to bulk up a small stock of this local variety,' said Judy.

Another which caught her eye at a specialist snowdrop collectors' event had a turned down mark on its inner petals – and was called 'grumpy'. When she came across a snowdrop originally grown from wild stock in Turkey, with a pronounced upward mark, she dubbed it 'smiley.'

It grew well, and spread, and she has been able to pass it around friends in what she calls the 'snowdrop community.'

'Amongst the Turkish snowdrops one sometimes finds interesting sorts,' she said. 'Some will flower as early as Christmas, some are quite tall, others short, and of course there are always the inner markings to study!'

It is technically possible to have snowdrops in flower from early October through to the end of March, but Judy says her season is the traditional one, starting after Christmas and running through to late March.

'It is the overture to the gardening year, when everything has its appointed season,' she said. Snowdrops at Chestnut Farm include:

Galanthus nivalis Poculiformis Group – with inner and outer segments virtually free of markings.

Galanthus elwesii type – with bold markings.

Galanthus plicatus – with folded leaf edges.

But the garden is not just about snowdrops, and the galunthus are complimented by hellebores and drifts of large flowered and specie crocus.

Later in the year the emphasis is on shrub borders. There is also a formal vegetable garden, a small formal garden, a fountain and summer house, and a paddock of favourite specimen trees which help create a wildlife area for birds and butterflies.

However, Judy and John's blossoming fascination with snowdrops has taken them to galunthus gardens, galas and conferences all over Britain – and with specialist events taking place all over western Europe, they may yet travel further afield in their pursuit of the pale beauty of the snowdrop.

Brian Ellis, of Brooke, is another collector. He explains the allure of the snowdrop. 'They seem so fragile and yet so brave as they come up through the snow each winter and stand there, whatever the weather, showing there is hope for the year to come.'

It is the magic of whole drifts of snowdrops which persuades him to add a new galanthus to his garden. Alone, they might not look anything special, but he said: 'When you see them growing in clumps there is something about them.'

February is a frantic month for the snowdrop-fancier and Brian's month is full of trips to see new treasures and showing enthusiasts his own garden.

He prefers to swap bulbs rather than buy at auction and his very favourite (for now) are snowdrops called lapwing and wasp.

The select band of Norfolk galanthophiles are the latest in a long line, which may date as far back as the monks of our pre-Reformation abbeys, and certainly takes in soldiers returning from far-flung battlefields – and a Mr H A Greatorex of Norwich, whose double-flowered specimens, created in the 1940s, are still stalwarts of the snowdrop scene.

t Chestnut Farm, West Beckham, near Holt, is open to snowdrop enthusiasts several times this spring, including from 11am to 4pm on February 28 and March 3, all in aid of the National Garden Scheme charities This is their 50th year in West Beckham and the garden will also be open, in their Golden Anniversary year, for National Garden Scheme on May 19, for the Sheringham and Cromer Choral Society on June 9, and for The British Red Cross Society on June 20.