Life

The Casual Gardener: There's been no drop in the appeal of the snowdrop

Snowdrops may be small but they have a big, dedicated following

Galanthus nivalis – or common snowdrop – will form a carpet after a few years

IT FEELS like I write about snowdrops every year but it's not something I intend to apologise for. These diminutive harbingers of spring are one of our best known and most loved plants, coming into flower during one of the darkest, coldest months, when all around is mostly dead or dormant.

The Galanthus genus consists of around 20 species sharing similar characteristics. While they come in various sizes – some as tall as 30cm – they all originate as bulbs and have grass-like dark green leaves and a single pendant-like, white drooping flower made up of six petals – three on the outside and three cupped in the middle.

Their prevalence in parkland and less formal landscaped settings (see the list of top locations below) has led to the misapprehension that they are native to Ireland and Britain. However, Galanthus originate on a swathe of mainland Europe and Asia stretching from northern Spain to Iran. They have, however, become naturalised over recent centuries far beyond their original homelands and now grow extensively as far away as North America and even the more temperate parts of Australia.

The species has a number of traditional and modern medicinal uses. It has been used in the past as a rub-on treatment for headaches and a poison antidote. More recently, the key ingredients for drugs such as Reminyl, one of the main treatments for mild to moderate dementia, is derived from galantamine, a compound found in snowdrop bulbs.

While mythology around the snowdrop is quite rare – there's not even a tale about St Brigid and the snowdrop – the flower has attracted many dedicated followers in the modern era. These collectors and enthusiasts call themselves Galanthophiles and their passion drives a healthy market in plants.

They would take little interest in Galanthus nivalis, the common snowdrop, which is the most widespread of the species, and the cheapest to buy. However, like many plants, G. nivalis and others in the genus are prone to occasional cross-pollination and mutation, which can result in some rare, and valuable, new plants.

Galanthus woronowii ‘Elizabeth Harrison' is said to be the world's most expensive snowdrop, with a few bulbs having reportedly fetched £750 on eBay back in 2012.

Named after a Perthshire woman in whose garden it was first spotted, it is apparently distinguished by a “yellow ovary bell-shaped part at its top, as well as golden markings on its petals”. It has not been identified anywhere else, which is why it is so sought after. Also on the A-list is ‘Green Tear', once the booty in a famed floral heist at a Somerset nursery.

If you're a beginner or on a tight budget, Galanthus nivalis is your best, most reliable bet. You can buy them over the coming months 'in the green' rather than in dormancy, which is the recommended method for success. Plant in a random, naturalised way in a shady spot in humus-rich soil. If contented they will slowly colonise an area, eventually providing the desired carpet effect.

BEST SPOTS FOR SNOWDROPS

:: The Argory in Moy Co Tyrone and Springhill in Moneymore, Co Derry are two of the National Trust's top snowdrop showcases during February with plants will also be available to buy at both.

:: Altamont Gardens in Co Carlow is the place to some rare cultivars, including 'Emerald Isle', a form of Galanthus ikariae with very green foliage.

:: Edinburgh Royal Botanic Gardens has a fantastic snowdrop collection and dedicated guided garden tours throughout this month.

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