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Sign of spring

30 January 2015

iStock

. . . remembering
after so long how to open again
in the cold light
of earliest spring -

"Snowdrops" Louise Glück

SNOWDROPS signify renewal and hope like no other flower. Louise Glück, a contemporary poet, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for The Wild Iris (Carcanet, 1992), her collection of poems set in a garden, and which includes "Snowdrops". But these little blooms were beloved by the 19th-century English Romantic poets, too, and it is tempting to assume that they are native. They are almost certainly alien, however. The species Galanthus nivalis arrived first, introduced by the Romans.

Snowdrops occur naturally from central Europe to Asia Minor. Once here, the white flowers became associated with purity, and were planted in honour of the Virgin Mary. There are seemingly wild populations at places of pilgrimage such as Walsingham, in Norfolk, and at ancient monasteries.

They garnered a variety of common, or county names: white violet; snow-piercer (perce-neige is used in France to this day); fair maids of February; and Candlemas bells. In fact, they serve as good justification for Latin botanical nomenclature: not only did the common names vary from region to region, they failed to distinguish between G. nivalis, and species introduced later on.

G. plicatus first arrived in the 1600s, and its numbers were bolstered by soldiers bringing it home from the Crimean War in the 1850s. G. elwesii is named after Henry John Elwes, who discovered it in Turkey and exported it to Britain from 1874 onwards.

The snowdrop's history on our shores is a perfect example of the domestication of a garden plant. An alien species is introduced, perhaps by accident or out of curiosity. Its merits are appreciated, and it is shared between gardeners.

A "cultivar" is born when such a variant is selected and maintained through cultivation and propagation. It may display larger flowers, early flowering, ease of cultivation, or unusual colouring or distinctive markings. Horticultural desire and connoisseurship has resulted in more than 700 named Galanthus cultivars in British gardens.

So, spoilt for choice as we are, which snowdrops stand out from the crowd? G. "S. Arnott" is tall and has honey-scented flowers. It was selected by Samuel Arnott (1852-1930), Provost of Maxwelltown, Dumfries and Galloway. G. "Atkinsii" honours another galanthophile, James Atkins, and is tall, elegant, early, and increases well. G. "Magnet" is notable for flowers which, being held well away from the stem, seem to spin on a windy day.

Snowdrop bulbs are prone to drying out. Plump bulbs bought in summer from a reputable supplier (thereby from cultivated stock rather than the wild), and planted in autumn, are another way to introduce a hint of optimism into your garden.

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