Although technically still winter, February is the month when you can really sense spring just around the corner. The snowdrop is the iconic plant that signals the beginning of the end of winter and getting out to see a snowdrop garden is a wonderful way to start the gardening year. Here are some of my favourite snowdrops places, both close to home and further away.
Somerset has a vibrant snowdrop heritage. In the 19th century Shepton Mallet was home to the ‘Snowdrop King’ James Allen, a passionate galanthophile who raised many new varieties. ‘Magnet’ and ‘Merlin’ are among a handful of Allen snowdrops that survive (but both have an RHS Award of Garden Merit to their name, a rare accolade in the world of snowdrops). The annual Shepton Mallet Snowdrop Festival celebrates Allen’s legacy and is a good place to meet specialist snowdrop nurseries.
EAST LAMBROOK MANOR
Margery Fish was an influential galanthophile who introduced many varieties in the mid 20th century, including the eponymous G. nivalis ‘Margery Fish’. Margery’s garden at East Lambrook Manor is still one of the premier snowdrop gardens in Somerset, and its annual Festival of Snowdrops has become a must-see for snowdrop fans. As well as drifts of naturalised snowdrops, there is a special ‘snowdrop amphitheatre’ whose raised tiers makes it easier to scrutinise the different varieties. The plant nursery offers plenty of interesting varieties if you want to build your own snowdrop collection.
Elworthy Cottage, on Exmoor, is another place of pilgrimage for snowdrop spotters. Jenny and Mike Spiller’s cottage garden opens several times a year for the NGS, but their springtime displays of snowdrops and hellebores are particularly stunning. The Spillers are exceptionally knowledgeable plantspeople and their extensive mail-order snowdrop selection includes rarities and home-raised varieties like G. ‘Elworthy Bumblebee’.
The Cotswolds is another part of the country where snowdrops rule OK, with several notable gardens to visit. Earlier this month I visited Batsford Arboretum, near Moreton in Marsh, whose 56 acre grounds contains snowdrop carpets on a grand scale. At this time of year, the snowdrops are complemented by flowering, fragrant shrubs like honeysuckle, daphne and witch-hazel. A truly sensory experience.
Rare trees and rare snowdrops combine to stunning effect at Colesbourne Park , probably the best-known snowdrop garden in the Cotswolds. I visited for the first time last year and it didn’t disappoint. Huge swathes of snowdrops, including the honey-scented variety ‘S. Arnott’, swaying in the wind and interspersed with bright purple and mauve cyclamen, make for an awe-inspiring sight.
Colesbourne’s snowdrop collection includes the descendants and hybrids of the first ‘giant’ snowdrop introduced to this country from Turkey by the plantsman John Henry Elwes in the 19th century. This species is now known as ‘Galanthus elwesii’. Showcasing over 350 cultivars in 10 acres of garden, Colesbourne is the biggest collection of snowdrops in the country and new varieties are regularly discovered.
Other snowdrop gardens to visit in the Cotswolds include Rodmarton Manor. This gem of an Arts & Crafts house and garden was designed by Ernest Barnsley for the Biddulph family. The garden was developed at the same time at the house from 1909, and laid out as a series of ‘rooms’ in the classic Arts & Crafts style.
Scattered throughout the garden rooms are some 150 different snowdrops, including several ‘Rodmarton’ varieties such as the lofty ‘G. ‘Rodmarton Regulus’, which moves beautifully in the wind.
While snowdrops always look lovely naturalised in drifts, I particularly like the way individual varieties are presented in the Outer Walled Garden at Rodmarton. Planting snowdrops in squares at the feet of trees makes it easy to see the differences between varieties. It looks really smart too.
In February only the garden is open to the public but a return visit later in the year is a must as Rodmarton is a true Gesamtkunstwerk and I am keen to see its original bespoke Arts and Crafts interiors and furnishings, which are largely intact. And having only seen the ‘bones’ of the garden on my first visit this month, it will be interesting to see it in its summer finery. The tearoom also merits a return visit, as it has rather good cakes!
COTSWOLD FARM GARDENS
Nearby Cotswold Farm Gardens makes a worthwhile counterpoint to Rodmarton. I visited on an NGS open day last week, on the same day as my Rodmarton trip. Ernest Barnsley also had a hand in this house and the garden was laid out by his assistant Norman Jewson. Divided into a series of terraced rooms that cascade down a Cotswold hillside, the garden enjoys far-reaching views to the Wiltshire downs.
The snowdrop collection here was started in the 1930s and further developed by Ruth Birchall in the 1980s and 90s; it now runs to over 80 varieties. The Birchalls are related to the Biddulphs, both families sharing an interest in snowdrops as varieties such as G. ‘Claud Biddulph’ and G. ‘Ruth Birchall’ attest.
One of the fun things about visiting snowdrop gardens is that once you get ‘your eye in’ you begin to recognise different varieties, meeting old friends and discovering new ones. At Cotswold Farm I fell for G. nivalis Sandersii – the pretty, yellow version of the ‘common’ snowdrop that I had not come across before. Sadly there were none of these for sale at the plant stand (perhaps as well for my bank balance!), but we did come home with a couple of pots of ‘Cotswold Farm Late’ and a single ‘Armine’ to add to last year’s purchases (‘Melanie Broughton’ and ‘Kingston Double’). And who knows, in a few years’ time, my own tiny garden might even produce its own ‘unknown hybrid’?