Hail, Queen Olga; Fighting Ferns; Cold Shoulders and Dark Heralds.

SDIM4433 (2)It seemed quite appropriate to have a heavy hail shower 10 days ago, to greet the first open snowdrops of the year, which perhaps otherwise could have seemed out of place in a still largely autumnal landscape.SDIM4402 (2)SDIM4386 (2)SDIM4390 (2) I’d planted these ‘in the green’ about 3 years ago, and this is the first year that they’ve really settled down and produced just a few flowers, but I was intrigued by the origin of the name, so did a bit of delving.

They are the ‘Cambridge’ cultivar of the snowdrop Galanthus reginae-olgae, subspecies. reginae-olgae. But why this unusual name? I guessed there was a queen link, and indeed the species was first named by a Greek poet and botanist T.G. Orphanides, who found it growing in the Taigetos mountains in the Peloponnese in 1870. He was convinced that he’d found something new, and therefore valuable, since the species consistently flowered in the autumn unlike the similar and much more common G. nivalis. He decided to name it after Queen Olga, latterly Queen of Greece after marrying George 1 of Greece in 1867 at the age of sixteen. Before then she’d been simply Grand Duchess Olga Constantinova of Russia, a member of the Romanov dynasty.

She lived an interesting, eventful and long life, returning to Russia after her husband was assassinated in 1913, and becoming trapped in the Pavlosk Palace near St. Petersburg (where she’d set up a hospital to cope with first world war casualties) around the time of the Russian revolution. She only escaped to Switzerland after the Danish embassy intervened on her behalf. She’s also the grandmother of the UK’s own HRH Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh. Click here for more about her life.SDIM4415 (2)

Whether using this name to describe a new snowdrop was a canny marketing move, or simply driven by affection and respect for Olga, doesn’t seem clear from what I’ve read. But when a German collector tried to buy some of the new bulbs for 50 frs, the offer was rejected – Orphanides demanded instead ten times this amount for each bulb, an exorbitant sum in those days.

Perhaps there is a moral here – the bulbs were declined at this price, Orphanides ended his days in a mad house, and the new species remained lost to cultivation until much later. It seems that the ‘Cambridge’ cultivar which I’m growing, and which has been awarded an AM, was collected on Corfu much later in the 1960’s by an unknown lady and subsequently donated to the Cambridge Botanic Gardens. I’m indebted to ‘Snowdrops’ A monograph of cultivated Galanthus’ by Bishop, Davis and Grimshaw, for much of this detail.

Although it’s fun to have these early bulbs as a hint of what’s ahead in a few weeks’ time, they don’t appear especially vigorous, and as you can see, seem to attract the attention of Welsh slugs. But the leaves have a distinctive central stripe, and the flowers are well shaped and marked. There is another subspecies, Galanthus reginae-olgae subsp. vernalis which blooms more conventionally from December onwards. As with many snowdrops, there are several named cultivars of each subspecies.SDIM4489 (2)

Many people suggest that they are a tricky snowdrop to grow well and are best grown in drier, sunnier locations in the UK. In their native environment, they tend to grow mainly above 1,000 metres in a variety of environments from woodland, to stream and river gorges. By chance before researching this, I’d planted them in a fairly warm, sunny and free draining spot beneath a young blackcurrant bush.

Click here to read more about this snowdrop species, which is on the IUCN Red List of threatened species in their indigenous territory, namely a few sporadic colonies in Greece, Montenegro and Italy (Sicily).SDIM4432 (2)

One of the native plant groups which really thrive in our high rainfall, high humidity environment, are the ferns. Without doing anything, they just appear, and whilst some are charming and delightful naturally placed garden additions.SDIM4479 (2)We’ve woken up fairly late in the day, to the fact that some of the larger forms turn into potentially invasive plants. Not quite as bad as bracken, but certainly large enough to dominate, and out compete any smaller or choicer deciduous plants growing near to them.SDIM4486 (2)So this year, Fiona has been undertaking a zero tolerance fern clearing session from many areas of the garden. Catch them early enough and they’re fairly easy to lift out, but a mature specimen – some of ours will be over 15 years old – and they’re brutes to remove, requiring huge physical effort to dig out the crown and roots (as above).SDIM4485 (2)Fiona was working on the long border outside the front of the house removing two of the biggest ferns, whilst I was clearing vegetation from the terrace garden, when an unusual sound made me turn and glimpse Fiona staggering into the house clutching her face in her hands.SDIM4454 (2a)

10 days later the nose has recovered, the black eyes are receding, and a new pair of glasses have been ordered. Apparently her slippery wet gloves had slipped from the garden fork handle just as she’d had the fern’s root ball under tension, and the fork sprang back smashing into her face. Nose bleed and black eyes notwithstanding, she was fortunate it struck the bridge of her glasses, and not a couple of inches lower, or several teeth would have been smashed. So,

Beware the fern which fights back!

I thought a brief resume of where ferns fit into the plant kingdom, as well as a simple review of their biology might be interesting.

They first appeared about 360 million years ago, but most of our current fern species developed much later, perhaps 160 million years ago. Like flowering plants (both gymnosperms such as conifers with naked seeds, and angiosperms which produce seeds within a fruit), they are vascular plants with fluid transport systems (unlike mosses) and leaves, roots and stems.SDIM4487 (2)

But unlike flowering plants they reproduce by spores, not flowers and seeds. And go through a surprisingly complex two stage life cycle. The spores are produced in huge quantities by the diploid (2 sets of chromosomes) parent, by meiotic or splitting, division. So the spore is only haploid (1 set of chromosomes).

In suitable conditions the spore will germinate and grow into a simple photosynthetic structure called a prothallus, which doesn’t look at all like the mature fern. This prothallus then produces haploid gametes or sex cells, consisting of a mobile male flagellate sperm form, and a non-mobile female egg form which remains attached to the prothallus. If the sperm successfully locates and fertilises the egg, then a diploid mature fern is created and will start to grow from the primitive prothallus form. Click here for a more in-depth review. This also explains why there is such a variety of forms, as with seed germinated plants.

This variety was brought home earlier in the year, when a garden visitor who has a nursery selling shade loving plants was distracted by the piles of recently uprooted ferns, and ended up going home clutching what he considered to be several potential gems (Click here for Tony’s website of shade loving plants).DSC_2307 (3) (Many thanks to fellow garden owner Keith Brown from the marvellous nearby garden at Cilgwyn Lodge, also open by appointment under the N.G.S, for taking this photo and indeed bringing Moira, Sylvia and Tony, pictured above, to visit Gelli Uchaf).

Ah well.

Finding a prothallus to photograph in the garden proved tricky at this time of the year, but locating very juvenile ferns is easy – they usually develop in nooks and crannies where higher relative moisture allows both spore germination and male gamete mobility.SDIM4502 (2)Thus it is, that the several different fern forms which inhabit Gelli Uchaf’s trees, walls, and shady spots, find it easy to develop and grow here – in places like our stone walls, the base of some of our matrix tyres, and the trunks of mature trees, we’re delighted to see them.c IMG_0078 (2)From the above, to the picture below, over a period of 20 years and thanks to high humidity and a lot of fern spores blowing around, I guess.SDIM4482 (2)SDIM4491 (2)But we shall adopt more of a zero tolerance approach to the larger ones from now on, and try to winkle them out before they reach a body threatening size.S1070006 (2)Before the hail arrived, I’d made a fairly rare and late sighting of a Grey Shoulder-knot moth, Lithophane ornitopus lactipennis, on the north facing white washed wall of our barn. This is one of the British moth species which overwinters in the adult mature insect form, and mates in the spring using pedunculate oaks as a larval food plant (a mature oak is barely 10 yards from this resting point).SDIM4382 (2)Much more common moth sightings at this time of the year are the wonderful Herald moths, Scoliopteryx libatrix. Fiona and I have just embarked on a rolling (3 years plus we guess, which will probably make it more like 6) retrofit project, addressing both insulation and light levels in the house, and so as we pulled out the last of several sheets of plasterboard from the cool space of our main barn, it was really no surprise to find a few Heralds clustered together on the darkest face of the last board. Carefully removed and replaced, they’ll hibernate until milder weather returns in March. We hope SDIM4447 (2)SDIM4450 (2)Finally, some more views from the garden, and a few final pastel colours from this year’s flowers as we still await our first Cyclamen coum – last year they’d begun to flower in mid October.SDIM4377 (2)SDIM4399 (2)SDIM4413 (2)SDIM4418 (2)SDIM4424 (2)SDIM4436 (2)SDIM4469 (2)SDIM4460 (2)SDIM4468 (2)SDIM4440 (2)SDIM4442 (2)

6 thoughts on “Hail, Queen Olga; Fighting Ferns; Cold Shoulders and Dark Heralds.

  1. The story of the snowdrop’s name is fascinating – thank you. Having trouble with my password so I’m sorry if you have already received a similar word of thanks from me!

    • Hello Mairwen,
      Thanks for the kind comment, and glad you liked the story of the snowdrop – it always surprises me what you find out by following a lead like this. Actually its well worth reading Olga’s full life story on the link that I gave in the blog post.
      We’re hoping that next spring will be better for the main bulk of snowdrops than this year, when all those cold winds blasted them,
      Best wishes

  2. Beautiful photographs and I loved the story of the Olga snowdrop, very appropriate for WordPress’ first screen snow flurry of the year.

  3. A very interesting post, thank you. I’m really interested that you produce most of your own electrity; do you have a battery for storage? I want to put solar panels here as we get so much sun I’m sure we could produce all we need if only we could store it.

    • Hello Christina,
      Glad you enjoyed the post.Re our Solar PV system, we don’t have batteries, since we’re connected to the grid, but are really pleased with the set up -even in fairly grey west Wales. But if you do go ahead, I would definitely look into an Immersun device to maximise use of any electricity that you do generate. I’ve given quite a lot of information on this in previous blog posts, which you could always search for. And of course one of the biggest benefits of generating your own electricity is that it’ll probably make you a lot more energy savvy and efficient.
      Best wishes

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