The snowdrop seems to defy nature by blooming in the depths of winter, but it also reminds us that spring will soon make a welcome return. Yet the flower is not only a sight that lifts spirits in the gloomy cold of February. With careful nurturing it can be grown into a shrewd investment that for collectors is worth hundreds of pounds.
The botanical name for snowdrop is Galanthus and is derived from the Greek terms ‘gala’, meaning milk, and ‘anthos’ – flower. Snowdrop enthusiasts are called galanthophiles.
There are about 20 wild species of the snowdrop, but there are also more than 1,500 hybrid variations to brighten up winter.
The most common snowdrop is the Galanthus nivalis – and it grows freely in the wild at this time of year. To the untrained eye a snowdrop looks like it has petals but these are actually flower-like leaves known as tepals.
The Galanthus nivalis has six white tepals – with the inner three being smaller than the others and coming with a notch on their tips and with a delicate green upturned ‘v’ pattern.
These beautiful drooping snowdrops should never be picked in the wild. According to folklore, they must not be kept inside either. In ancient times they were known as the ‘death flower’ and those that did not heed these warnings could suffer bad luck. As a symbol of purity and hope the snowdrop should instead be allowed to grow as found – though this need not stop you buying a bundle of bulbs or flowers for about £5 from a garden centre.
A galanthophile, however, is unable to stop at just admiring the ‘common snowdrop’. They must seek out other variations in colour, shape and pattern. And it is these most rare and sought-after collectable snowdrops that can be worth several hundred pounds.
The way you can make money from a snowdrop is by purchasing one of the rare species or hybrids and using the bulbs to grow more – but it is not easy, which is also why they are so valuable.
Snowdrops spread naturally by creating new bulbs from an existing clump under the ground – or being spread by seed. Growers usually divide the clumps by hand and then replant the snowdrop bulbs to come up as new plants the following year.
Sir Henry Elwes owns Colesbourne Park estate in Gloucestershire – which has more varieties of snowdrop than possibly any other garden in the world. It has up to 350 types across ten acres.
His great grandfather was Henry John Elwes, a botanist widely regarded as the father of galanthophiles who discovered a rare greater snowdrop in 1874. It was later named after him, the ‘Galanthus elwesii’.
Rare hybrids of this elwesii are among the collectables sold by the estate. They include a yellow ‘Carolyn Elwes’ whose single bulbs change hands for £250. Another of these hybrids is ‘Don Armstrong’ and these small flowers cost £120.Other snowdrop species and hybrids sold at the estate include the ‘Green Tear’ which costs £100 – although it has been known to sell for as much as £360.
Others, including the ‘E A Bowles’, ‘Florence Baker’ and ‘Seraph’, each sell for £60. Yet even these prices are modest compared to the record £1,390 that a ‘golden fleece’ snowdrop fetched five years ago on an auction website.
It stands out because of the fully formed flower shape and yellow markings on the rear of the tepals. Other snowdrops that have sold for hundreds of pounds at auction include the ‘Flocon de Neige’, an aptly chosen French term for snowflake whose six tepals flare out to reveal a gorgeous rosette flower.
Elwes says: ‘The collecting of snowdrops is a relatively modern pursuit begun by my family about 150 years ago. Some believe that many of the varieties may have been brought back by soldiers from the Caucasus after the Crimean War between 1853 and 1856. They were planted in churchyards across Britain to remember the dead and over the years began to spread elsewhere. They are the source of many variations we know and love today.’
Before these new species and hybrids arrived, only the common snowdrop was found. This was believed to have been brought over by the Romans.
Elwes, 84, says: ‘We have been growing snowdrops for many years – it is a skill that requires patience and the time to experiment. Part of the reason some varieties are so sought after and expensive is not just their magnificent appearance, but that they do not reproduce easily.’
The best time to plant snowdrop bulbs is after the flowers have faded – though perhaps before the leaves have totally died.
But some galanthophiles plant later, in late spring or early summer, when the snowdrop is withered but the bulb is still relatively large and in good health. The bulbs are vulnerable to drying in summer and should be planted with well-rotted organic matter.
Galanthophiles also do artificial propagation through ‘twin scaling’ where pieces of bulbs are sliced into a dozen or so tiny pieces – a practice best left to the experts.
After flowering, a snowdrop stem wilts to the ground and seed pods from the flower head can fall into the earth and eventually grow into future snowdrops. Again, a novice will find this hard to replicate and it is a process best left to nature.
Elwes is understandably proud of the £250 Carolyn Elwes – a hybrid named after his wife. It has three leaves with yellow tips and an inner cluster of tepals with markings also tinged yellow.
But the lifelong galanthophile points out you do not need to fork out a fortune to invest in the best snowdrops. Among his favourite is the ‘S Arnott’, whose bulbs cost £1.50 at Colesbourne Gardens. Elwes says: ‘It is a vigorous snowdrop with luminous white bulbs that smell faintly of honey. Bees love it and the scent reminds you of spring.’
The snowdrops brought over from the Crimea were predominantly the ‘G plicatus’. A variation of this snowdrop – the ‘Wandlebury Ring’ – can sell for more than £100. Many other snowdrops originate from around woodlands in the mountainous regions of Turkey and the Ukraine but they can come from as far afield as Iran.
This wide variation of climates enables galanthophiles to find snowdrops that begin blooming as early as November and as late as April. Some, such as the ‘G Reginae-Olgae’, can even bloom in late September. These rarities may cost as much as £10 for a single bulb. However, the biggest bloom period is in February.
Snowdrop enthusiasts should be wary of buying blind on the internet and use a specialist nursery or bid for them at a horticultural event where it is possible to view plants and bulbs.
Colesbourne Park sells more than 100 different varieties and – like other specialist dealers – is happy to provide free snowdrop nurturing advice. Others that specialise in snowdrops include Avon Bulbs and Broadleigh Gardens, both of which are in Somerset.
There is also Ashwood Nurseries in the West Midlands, Foxgrove Plants in Berkshire and North Green Snowdrops in Suffolk.
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