Casual Gardener: Altamont looks like snowdrop heaven

Ireland's largest public collection of snowdrops forms the centrepiece of an annual festival celebrating this much-loved harbinger of spring...

The vigorous and early flowering Galanthus 'Atkinsii'. Picture by Paul Butler

galanthophile; noun: a person who collects (or loves) snowdrops.

GALANTHOPHILES from across Ireland and beyond are drawn to Co Carlow every February to view what is billed as the country’s 'largest public collection of snowdrops'. There are more than 150 named varieties in bloom at Altamont Gardens at this time of year, each with its own story, and many with local connections or strong associations with other parts of the island. Take Galanthus ‘Mark’s Tall’, discovered in Co Antrim by Mark Smyth and as its name suggests a comparatively large specimen at some 30cm. Also taller than Galanthus nivalis, the common snowdrop, is G. ‘Drummond’s Giant’, a variety first identified a matter of miles from Altamont and subsequently brought to the estate by Corona North, the lady responsible for building this extensive collection.

Inheriting the grand 18th century house and 104 acre gardens near Tullow in 1983 following the death of her mother Isobel Lecky-Watson at the age of 101, passionate plantswoman Corona set about restoring the largely derelict gardens, transforming Altamont into one of Ireland's best-loved and most-visited gardens.

The template was already in place – there’s been a parkland garden in a Robinsonian style (after William Robinson) since the mid 18th-century, including an ice-age glen of sessile oaks and giant granite boulders, and a one-acre lake dug to provide labour during the Famine. There are also more formal elements around the house with rosebeds, a peony walk and an azalea collection, as well as tulip trees and handkerchief trees.

Corona was unquestionably a galanthophile and up until her death in 1999, after which Altamont became the property of the Office of Public Works, she assembled an almost unrivalled collection of snowdrops, which has been augmented and expanded by the new owners since. Prized varieties inlcude 'Emerald Isle’, a form of Galanthus ikariae with very green foliage, and the vigorous and early-flowering G. 'Atkinsii'.

For the past 21 years, Corona's legacy has been the centrepiece of a month-long festival, celebrating the garden’s strong association with this much-loved harbinger of spring. Since the beginning of February, there’s been series of snowdrop-flavoured events across Co Carlow, including a Snowdrop Gala at Ballykealey House in nearby Ballon and weekend family events at Huntington Castle, situated in the picturesque village of Clonegal. The festival extends to venues in Co Kilkenny – Shankill Castle in Paulstown – and Co Kildare – the gardens at Burtown House near Athy, where there’s also a notable collection of aconites, hellebores and other early bulbs.

But all roads lead back to Altamont and those carpets of snowdrops across acres of parkland, with many of the highly-desirable varieties on sale at nearby Altamont Plant Sales, run by nurseryman Robert Miller. Altamont’s Snowdrop Month finishes up on Monday, when guide Peter Walsh will host the last of this year’s galanthus-themed garden tours. In recent weeks, he’s welcomed a group from the Netherlands, alongside other overseas visitors and various Irish gardening societies.

Peter explains how to the untrained eye, all snowdrops pretty much look the same – apart from some varieties being bigger than others.

“But look closely at the flowers and they reveal themselves in a variety of patterns, some where green becomes the predominant colour on petals that we tend to regard as synonymous with whiteness,” he says.

He notes how every variety is individually labelled at Altamont, enabling visitors to scrutinise the subtle differences. But even if detail and being a galanthophile isn't your thing, you can still enjoy the snowdrops.

"There are few better sights than Altamont's snowdrop carpeted boardwalk in spring," says Peter.

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