My order for writing these posts seems to have developed into consistently being: ideas, research and taking photos, fix a title, write the text and finally upload the images. So, two days ago when I fixed on the title, it was going to be pretty much devoted to snowdrops. As I write this on Sunday evening with 2 inches of snow outside for the first significant snowfall of the winter so far, I’m hoping to be able to add a suitable white blanket image in the morning:
I’ve included a few images of snowdrops in the previous couple of posts, since they’ve flowered very early this year, but the last week has seen blanket coverage of snowdrops in all the garden related publications which we receive, and several have more than one article in each publication. I can’t recall a previous year when such blanket coverage in a short space of time happened. Why should this be, and is there any point in this blog adding to the pile of words written in 2012 on the Galanthus species?
I guess that the British do have a soft spot for these reliable first flowers of the New Year, and which many folk take to be indigenous and native. In fact none of the 19 or so worldwide species are native to the UK. The most common ‘wild’ Galanthus nivalis was brought to the UK centuries ago – perhaps as early as the Roman occupation, but more likely in the middle ages (no one knows for certain) and its ability to thrive in the UK in spite of coming from the mountains and woodland of more Southerly European climates clearly endeared itself to the natives. But galanthomania also seems to be popular in Germany, Holland, Ireland and the U.S.A to name just a few countries with significant galanthophiles.
My own breakthrough moment with snowdrop appreciation came after buying our home, Gelli Uchaf, and witnessing for the first time the enormous and often very early snowdrop displays which brighten the stark hedgerows in the surrounding Carmarthenshire countryside. Why were the snowdrops so big and early compared with those around Bristol? Was it all the rain? Could you grow snowdrops this big and early in an upland Welsh garden?
In the end, about 8 years ago, I discovered the Broadleigh Bulbs website in Devon, and started to read about the variety of less common snowdrop species and varieties. It was very recently that I realised that in fact some of the nearby large ‘wild’ snowdrops aren’t the more common G. nivalis, but the larger G. plicatus. This was “discovered” by the British soldiers fighting in the Crimean War in the 1850’s and many returning troops brought bulbs back with them. The fact that this historically poor part of Wales was still being carved up into smallholdings around this time perhaps contributed to so many drifts of bulbs appearing on roadsides now. That and the fact that this species seems to be quite good at setting seed.
All those years ago, my first slightly uncommon snowdrops arrived “in the green”, and were laid out in a few rows in our previous vegetable garden in Bristol, to bulk up with a view to relocating them in due course to Gelli. Like the ‘Cyclamen coum compound interest’ piece in my last blog, the great thing with many, though not all forms of snowdrops, is that if they thrive in your locality then the bulbs multiply naturally and regularly. So by lifting and dividing roughly every 3 years, an initially small number can quite quickly become a significant number – for a moderately vigorous variety 1 bulb will produce at least 3 bulbs and flowers in 3 years; divide and replant yields 9 in a further 3 years, and so on. Compound returns indeed from what I call the Playtex principle of Lift and Separate/Divide (a bit of a giveaway of my age from the days when we were exposed to TV adverts, and checking my facts on this strapline, I found that it had been voted into the top 70 of all time for memorability and advertising success).
A bit of work is involved in all this moving about of bulbs, and at some point, you run out of possible planting positions, but since snowdrops seem to thrive best planted right underneath shrubs and deciduous trees where they get a natural annual mulch with leaf litter, most garden will have lots of spaces for them. Provided the soil doesn’t become waterlogged, these locations give them the winter and spring sunshine, moist growing conditions, but also the dry summer dormant rest that many forms seem to prefer.
Since we didn’t keep records in those days, I’m still a bit uncertain exactly which varieties apart from G. “Atkinsii” we actually bought and now grow. But I’ve been spending more time looking at leaf forms, flower patterns and flowering times this year. This is where many worthy articles often seem to be a little lacking in making the point that like any flowering plant it’s not just the flower size that matters, but also how tall it is, and whether it flowers before or after the common G. nivalis, which many people will already have in their gardens in variable numbers.
This single point of extending the flowering season by choosing different cultivars is what many people who haven’t yet shown galanthophilic tendencies, may be missing. I’m particularly interested in cultivars which will extend the snowdrop season here, especially earlier, and also taller varieties which will have more impact. But they also need to be good doers and vigorous, to enable the impact of clumps to be achieved more quickly. There doesn’t seem to be much point having additional types which don’t thrive in a garden setting (but I fear that this comment may be heresy to some avid collectors).
The now ubiquitous ebay effect has allowed the world of galanthomania to expand and create a new generation of plant hunters keen to outbid their unseen and unknown rivals to acquire that very special latest, and expensive bulb. Already this year, over £300 has been bid on more than one occasion for single bulbs of the new kid on the block “Green Tears”. We’ve succumbed to a few of the much cheaper varieties, including the intriguingly named “Green Teeth” which hopefully will meet our criteria above, as well as adding to our own gene pool for a bit of artificial breeding. As well as ebay, we also find the lists of snowdrops provided by Avon Bulbs and Harvey’s plants as being very extensive and well described, but with many varieties it’s worth researching on many internet sites to discover all of the attributes of a particular plant.
On the subject of artificial pollination, the simple fine artist’s paintbrush is again all that’s needed. But I’ve had very little success on finding any information on snowdrop pollen viability, or the fertility of specific snowdrop varieties. My observations suggest that many are sterile or of very low fertility, including perhaps G. nivalis. Or is it just again that in many locations in the UK there will be few natural pollinating insects around when many snowdrops actually flower? (As gardeners there is a perverse benefit from growing cultivars which are sterile, since this will tend to mean that the flowers last much longer – in most cases flower fertilisation leads to the early death of the flower’s petals/tepals to concentrate the energy of the plant into seed production).
Other snowdrops do at least produce significant quantities of orange pollen. If you’re fortunate to have honeybees nearby, then it’s a favoured early pollen source for them, but many snowdrops will flower before the bees start foraging in a meaningful way. Last year, in March, I also photographed moths inside Snowdrop flowers, but can’t be sure if they were involved in actual pollen transfer. This year, no honeybees are around in the garden yet, and few moths now that the weather is turning colder.
Most of today’s exploding number of Galanthus cultivars will still be the result of natural pollination, or else natural bulb mutations or sports, eventually leading to chance findings in gardens or the wild, by eagle-eyed and bent double prowling galanthophiles who emerge round the turn of the year.
I seem to have had quite good success with pollen collection and some seed production from forms of G. elwesii, and pollen collection from some G. plicatus forms (like “Trym”, and “Wendy’s Gold”). Sowing the seed in the summer, it’ll take around 4 years from germination the following spring for a seedling bulb to become large enough to flower, but I think that this is a short time for a patient gardener to wait for one’s own potential Galanthus star to surface.
Whilst on a recent nursery visit to view snowdrops and do a bit of Galanthus swapping, my host was unfortunate in digging out a G. “Trym”, but without the bulb, which was much deeper than expected. He kindly let us take the flower home, with its pair of leaves (nearly all Galanthus only have a single pair of leaves which arise from the top of the bulb), and I’ve harvested some obvious pollen from this stunning and scented flower on a couple of occasions to use on some other forms back here. He also mentioned that a colleague from another nursery had told him that you can propagate snowdrops from leaf cuttings. I couldn’t find any information on this on-line, but ever up for a challenge, have had a go with the 2 leaves in a pot of homemade soil/leaf mould/vermiculite by dipping the basal cut leaf surface in rooting hormone, and putting a simple partial plastic bottle cloche over them to maintain humidity. 8 days on and the leaves are for now still healthy. I’ll update if they survive or fail, in due course.
As a brief follow on from my pruning saw accident, this week a half cm wood splinter finally emerged from my knuckle nearly 5 weeks after the injury. I fear that more may still be lurking beneath the surface. The Norwegian Spruce may have become my very own Thorn in My Side.
As the snow started to fall this morning, larger flakes seemed to appear beneath the Oak, until I realised that they were in fact pieces of moss which were being dislodged and cast down by a Nuthatch working the limbs for invertebrates. The all-pervasive moss showing once again how the microclimate which it creates is home to a huge amount of invertebrate food for the birds at this challenging time of the year.
Finally, huge excitement yesterday as I thought that I’d better open some of my foil wrapped tree and shrub seeds which I’d had in the fridge for a period of cold stratification from late October/November. The inevitable Christmas provisions fridge-filling meant that they had to be banished to a by then cooler, outside barn. After the first few parcels revealed several with seeds with already formed first leaves, I realised that I’d better go through the whole lot. In the end 20 out of 64 species have already germinated at least partially. These were potted on, as were all the remainder, by carefully tipping the contents onto tamped down homemade compost (soil/leafmould/vermiculite… roughly 40/40/10), and top-dressing with a thin layer of vermiculite. The pots with no signs of germination just yet were placed outside for a bit more stratification (with very cold temperatures forecast for this coming week).
But what to do with the already germinated seeds? The greenhouse was a possibility, but has no heating. Since I’d decided that on the advice of my seed supplier (Real Seeds) aubergine and sweet pepper seeds need sowing about now to achieve a long enough growing season for success, some means of adequate heat and light was needed at least for a few weeks. In the end this morning I’ve fashioned an indoor propagator using our mini trailer as a base, Celotex insulation boards and my old Light Box which I’d acquired in Bristol to stave off the effects of Seasonal Affected Disorder. I’m hoping that the insulation and indoor location will generate enough light and heat to keep the fragile tree seeds going until the outside temperatures improve.
But where do I manage to find the temperatures of 25 degrees C plus, necessary for successful aubergine and pepper germination? Using my digital thermometer, (see previous blog entry Tropical temperatures in Wales) the consistently warmest place in the house seems to be in the inglenook wicker chimney hood above the wood burning stove – so this is where the seeds are from today, on damp kitchen towel, covered with cling film in individual plastic cream pots.
If or when they germinate, I’ll have to find space for them out with the tree seedlings in the propagator. As a precaution I’ve retained 50% of the seed to have another go if this doesn’t work. Interestingly, light levels are improving so fast that on a sunny Saturday yesterday the PV maximum output hit 3384W (Barely 10% below its maximum output level), so at least some of the Lightbox power usage will be generated on site.
Finally, a little colour in the garden, after all the previous focus on whiteness: