Diarmuid Gavin: Fit to drop - snowdrops are about to radiate cheer
Spring is on the way, as much-loved snowdrops begin to radiate cheer in our dormant gardens
My heart skips a beat as I put pen to paper as the subject matter - a delicate looking flower whose durability, strength and resilience belies its fragile appearance - heralds the beginning of a new year of gardening. There may be months of frozen or sodden soil ahead, howling winds may make practical gardening uncomfortable, but the drooping white flowers of many hundreds of varieties of Galanthus demonstrate that spring - with all the hope which it brings - cannot be far away, and new cycle gardening, starting with a succession of colourful bulbs radiating cheer in our gardens, has begun.
But it all starts with those little white drops.
So, what is it about the common snowdrop that makes it such a well-loved plant?
Although not native to these islands it has made itself at home here since at least the 16th century, happily naturalising in woodlands and gardens throughout Ireland. It's frequently found within the gardens of old churches, and its clean white flowers are a symbol of hope and purity.
Galanthus nivalis, the common snowdrop, is the most widespread and best-known. It's a solitary nodding flower with three white outer petals and three inner segments with some green markings. But there are hundreds of cultivars and hybrids of this and other galanthus species, with subtle variations in the size, shape and marking of petals, as well as differences in flowering times.
There are collectors and enthusiasts who enjoy and celebrate these differences so much, they are known as Galanthophiles. While it's not as mad as tulip mania - where tulip bulbs were traded for the price of homes in 17th century Amsterdam - nonetheless a single snowdrop bulb, G. Elisabeth Harrison, traded for over €800 some years back due to its rare yellow markings! Named after the owner of the Scottish garden where it first appeared as a seedling , it was bought by Thompson and Morgan, the seed and plant suppliers who are using it for propagation with the notion of introducing it to market and therefore our gardens in the future.
So what's the best way to grow snowdrops? As with any other plant, it's best to replicate their natural habitat. In this case, it's woodland planting, so semi-shade is ideal in a humus-rich, slightly moisture-retentive soil.
The key point with snowdrops is to plant them "in the green". This means purchasing them when they are still in leaf, not dried out little bulbs in autumn. Specialist nurseries will dispatch them in leaf, wrapped to preserve their moisture.
Similarly, if you wish to lift and divide, do so while they are flowering or just afterwards. If possible, plant where they have space to naturalise as this is how they look at their best - tonnes of them scattered by nature's artistic hand. And use some slow-release fertiliser such as bonemeal, which will help build up energy reserves in the bulbs, ensuring years of productivity.
If you'd like to dip a toe into the ocean of different varieties available, here's a few I'd recommend to start you off: G 'Magnet' is a taller vigorous variety that quickly forms good clumps. 'Flore Pleno' is the double flowered form of the common snowdrop, and look for G 'S Arnott' for honey-scented flowers - they're too low on the ground to get down and smell, but a delicious fragrance to catch in a breeze.
To see snowdrops in their prime, an event called Snowdrop Week is hosted at Altamont Gardens in Co Carlow every February by the Office of Public Works (OPW). The OPW cares for many of our finest public gardens, including the Botanic Gardens in Glasnevin (also home to a fine collection of snowdrops), and Garnish Island in Cork.
The garden at Altamont extends over some 40 acres and contains trees dating back to 1750, and even older ones in the glen by the river, including 500-year-old oaks. This is an opportunity to marvel at the vast varieties of snowdrops in bloom throughout the garden, and also to acquire several types to start or add to your own collection, along with a selection of wonderful hellebores.
Altamont Gardens, Tullow, Carlow, 059 915 9444, email: firstname.lastname@example.org