Downs Tools, Walks and West Wales Snowdrops; and Floral Symmetry.

No disgust here, but delight at a fabulous clear blue sky on the morning of February 17th. Clearly time to down tools, and walk. The inevitable late-stage symptom of rural disease. Not entirely true either since I spent much of the morning wielding my trusty tiny pollinating brush on open crocus flowers, with camera to hand, since there are still very few insects around – more later.SDIM0471 (2)

But to continue the lyrical linked theme, this being the height of the snowdrop season, and me being a confirmed galanthophile, the afternoon saw us hitting the road for a secretive arranged visit to a private natural snowdrop wood in Carmarthenshire. The trip along mainly ‘A’ roads was disappointing in its lack of visible snowdrops. Perhaps half a dozen roadside smallish clumps in about an hour of driving. So much so, that I said to Fiona that whatever we saw, we should be enthusiastic with Jenny, since it was really kind of her to suggest coming down to look at her special patch.

Muddy boots were pulled on after arrival, Elle, the working collie, insisted on joining us, and off we went, turning into a river side meadow and past some old agricultural buildings. Then we got our first glimpse, and I was bowled over.

Audible exclamations ensued, much to Jenny’s amusement.SDIM0534 (2)

Perhaps 3 acres of steep North East facing bank, carpeted with a mass of tallish Galanthus nivalis.SDIM0548 (2) At the top of the bank, the remnants of the original old stone farmhouse complete with bread oven and inglenook lintel, are hidden inside a more recently constructed modern agricultural shed. Jenny wasn’t sure just how far back in time the ancient farmhouse would have been built, but this must have been when, and where, the snowdrops were first planted with loving hands. From there, they’ve exuberantly tumbled down towards the river over the centuries, filling in an old leat, which used to take water to the valley bottom mill.SDIM0540 (2)

What was different about this special site? Well apart from the aspect, the bank was covered with elm regrowth, and brambles. The old mature elms must have been taken out, decades ago, by Dutch elm disease. So there was a massive amount of leaf litter, and quite a lot of shade in summer. But why so prolific?

Maybe a very fertile clone, and perhaps historically honeybees were kept nearby to ensure good pollination and seed set. SDIM0552 (2)But I suspect some critical mycorrhizal fungal interaction as well with the snowdrop roots, to explain just how prolific they are. In addition, the very steep slope will have aided natural spread over a wide area, as bulbs which ‘grow’ their way to the surface through natural annual replacement growth, become dislodged, and take a tumble lower down, aided by tunneling rodents, before re-rooting. Interestingly, a few years ago, Jenny had moved lots of them to create a snowdrop lined driveway, just a few hundred yards from their base. But as she pointed out, the snowdrops had their own ideas about surviving in such a different site, and the results are now decidedly patchy.SDIM0558 (2)

An important lesson here for gardeners, that snowdrops, like many other spring bulbs, are very happy in even dense deciduous summer shade, and thrive on the annual leaf litter fall from trees and shrubs, if the aspect is sufficiently open for some light to reach them early in the year. But don’t always thrive in grass, and full sun away from shrubby plants with associated leaf litter.SDIM0555 (2)

On Valentine’s day we’d visited Aberglasney gardens, where we thought their snowdrops were looking stunning in the sunshine, and we noticed many of the formal beds had been heavily mulched recently.S1060002 (2)S1060018 (2)Probably great for the snowdrops, and Iris reticulata ‘Harmony’ (and obviously a great weeding time saver), but we did fear a bit for the Cyclamen coum – having flatter ground hugging leaves, it’s tricky not to cover them up, particularly any small seedling leaves. And although the snowdrop clumps are big, and lots of Aberglasney’s bees were collecting pollen from the flowers, there’s not much evidence of seedling snowdrops between the defined clumps.

Yet. Or are they too struggling with so much mulch? Or is the clone not just as fecund as Jenny’s wild ones?S1060019 (2)And I wouldn’t have thought snowdrops would have managed between these large evergreen Bergenia leaves, but doesn’t this combination look beautiful?S1060023 (3)Back home, although I’ve started mulching my snowdrop recycled matrix tyre ‘theatre’, (you’ll have to wait a few years before I dare show any pictures of this), with about an inch of leaf mould compost from my greenhouse compost heater in November, I haven’t worked out how to tweak this regime to allow me to get the Cyclamen coum and snowdrops to co-exist happily. But I shall persist, since the homegrown C. coum, and G. ‘Percy Picton’ growing beneath a blueberry bush look really lovely together.SDIM0387 (2)

Our drifts of Cyclamen coum seem to thrive amongst uncleared leaf litter, and ground hugging moss, with nothing other than a scattering of wood ash and a bit of hand weeding. They’re now starting to work quite effectively as ground cover themselves, growing here beneath deciduous scented azaleas. Buying 40 of these about 4 years ago was one of the best purchases we ever made. SDIM0460 (2)SDIM0430 (2)SDIM0406 (2)

And our own snowdrops continue to bulk up. But for all the lifting and dividing I’ve done over the years, it really needs the added influence of decades of maturity and multiplication to ever match the beauty of those wild west Wales snowdrops that Jenny showed us.SDIM0366 (2)SDIM0531 (2)SDIM0456 (2)

Returning to the afore mentioned pollinating brush, why do I bother?

After all I have a whole section on the blog about insect friendly flowers, so surely, I should just leave it up to them?SDIM0517 (2)

Later in the year, I’m happy to do this, but so far we’ve only had two, very brief, occasions when any honeybees have been flying. February 4th and February 17th, and it’s still too early for any bumblebees to have emerged from hibernation here.S1050067 (2) So, since I think that these very first flowers of late winter and early spring bulbs (snowdrops/aconites/crocus/cyclamen coum), have huge added therapeutic value, for any winter-tired gardener, they’re the ones to concentrate on trying to bulk up.

But if they never get pollinated this is unlikely to happen!

And they’re mainly derived from source material grown in an artificial Dutch bulb field environment, not a wet Welsh hillside.SDIM0501 (2)And given goodness knows what fertiliser and or pesticide treatments.

Home germinated and grown has to be best, in gradually moving populations to forms which are adapted to the conditions local to our garden. SDIM0486 (2)

It’s also really therapeutic and interesting, on a glorious sunny morning, to gently drift between flowers, Crocs on feet and brush in hand. You can spot subtle colour variations between Crocus tommasinianus forms, and even favour pollen collection from those flowers with stronger or more unusual petal hues.SDIM0408 (2)SDIM0479 (2)SDIM0411 (2)

You also begin to see the benefits of your efforts within a few short years – only Crocus chrysanthus ‘Cream Beauty’ corms were planted on the slope below – the other colour variants are the result of scattering saved crocus seed on the surface, 3-4 years ago. How simple is that?SDIM0507 (3)

I also did a double take as I was flitting between the masses of purple goblets, and discovered a perfect opened flower, but instead of the usual 6 petals, (actually 3 sepals and 3 petals) there were 8.SDIM0414 (2)

And if you look closely there are 4 stamens and also 4 filamentous orange branches off the style, instead of the usual 3. From searching on line, this doesn’t seem particularly common in crocus – I only found one in all the thousands of flowers I’d moved across. But it led me to discover that crocus is one of those more unusual genus groups of plants in that they have a wide range of chromosome numbers. Click here for a comparison with other organisms, and here for variations in chromosome numbers in a single crocus species, Crocus biflorus. No one seems quite sure why, but it may be an aid to, or consequence of, species diversification. Whether or not my 8 petalled form has a different chromosome count to its neighbours, I guess I’ll never know.SDIM0415 (2)

But I also discovered that most floral symmetry, across all flower types, is controlled by a single gene, known as the CYCLOIDEA (CYC) gene. Click here for more, about how this gene is expressed within a flower, or even parts of a flower, and how this expression controls the way the flower looks.

The default, or evolutionary base, design is in flowers like the daisies, or indeed Crocus, which have multiple radial symmetries of 3 or more planes. Such basic variations on star shapes, are known botanically as actinomorphic flowers.SDIM0468 (2)

A variation in some flowers involves a simpler symmetry, so that like a human face, a mirror image of the flower is created down its centre, in just one position. Such bilateral symmetry is known as zygomorphic, and orchids and members of the pea family are examples of this floral type. Several variants of zygomorphic flowers seem to have evolved independently, and in the pea family, Leguminosae, the 3 sets of petals which make up the distinctive winged type of flower common to the group – standard, wings and keels – all develop into their very different forms because of different levels of expression of the CYC gene. This gene is more strongly expressed at the top of the forming flower bud, and not expressed at the bottom of the bud, producing flowers specifically designed to attract certain types of pollinating insects.

Finally, there are a few flowers which lack any floral symmetry, like valerian, Valeriana officinalis. Interestingly, some plants like snapdragons which are normally zygomorphic, have produced radially symmetrical flowers as an aberration. Such flowers are known as peloric, and whilst it can simply be a developmental error, breeders have exploited its potential to create larger flowers, though again in such cases the change in flower type all comes back to changes in the expression of the CYC gene.

I hope that the above detour into a bit of science doesn’t detract from the aesthetic essence of these wonderful crocus flowers, which whether open or closed, light up the generally still chilly garden scene.SDIM0425 (2)SDIM0475 (2)SDIM0473 (2)SDIM0435 (2)

14 thoughts on “Downs Tools, Walks and West Wales Snowdrops; and Floral Symmetry.

  1. Beautiful and informative as usual. The spring flowers lit up a very dark, wet, windy morning. Plant genetics is not my field, but unlike animals plants seem to exhibit not only variation in chromosome number but also phenotype plasticity (i.e. variations in how genes are expressed). A plant breeders heaven.

    • Thanks for the comment. After the forecast of more severe storms, I do hope that you’re unscathed by the latest blow. I sometimes wonder if I’d have enjoyed a botanical or horticultural career, rather than one with animals. But then I wouldn’t be approaching these subjects now with such wide eyed enthusiasm and ignorance!
      Best wishes,

  2. Wonderful photographs that capture the amazing displays of snowdrops that you’ve been fortunate to see these last weeks. Really sorry I missed your visit to Aberglasney hopefully we’ll catch up later in the year when there’ll be plenty more reasons to visit the Gardens. Not that I understand it all but I do enjoy reading your wanders into science and poetry but most of all I appreciate your ability to capture all the nature in your garden and around in your amazing photography. After all a picture paints a thousand words!

    • Thank you Marianne,
      We’ll definitely be back at Aberglasney through the year – Jenny(?) at the shop said that there are lots more daffodils now than in previous years, which we’d love to see. Glad you like my science based scribbling and attempts at poetry – the great thing about a blog is the freedom to stray into any of these fields if the mood takes you!
      BTW, did you have a fabulous sunrise this morning? I was lying in bed telling F that I thought there hadn’t been that many good ones this winter, when bang. The sky turned red, and I leaped out of bed with the camera!

  3. Julian, really lovely post and wonderful photographs, have you discovered some thing new with the 8 petalled crocus? Did you mark the plant and will you save the seed? The natural Snowdrop wood looks a beautiful place to walk too that must of been a spectacular sight. I visited Lordship Bennington in Hertfordshire on Friday where they have many snowdrops, I went because I do not get the fascination and wanted to understand more. The head gardener told me Snowdrops are often pollinated by beetles and ants as it could be to cold for Bees. Love the Botany you’ve added today too.

  4. Thanks for the comment, Julie,
    I think the Crocus must be fairly unusual, and I have marked the clump. But it’s in amongst lots of others, and so saving seed from just this one would be tricky. I could dig the whole clump up and replant them elsewhere, individually. But our biggest worry with Crocus is rodent predation, which always seems worst when corms are recently planted. So I guess I shall wait another year, and then hope I might have 3 or more Corms to risk moving them. I love these Crocus so much I save as much seed as possible every year. When I last looked, you didn’t seem to be able to source C. tommasinianus seed from anyone in the UK, which seems strange.

    I’ve heard about Lordship Beninngton, but never been. Did the visit enlighten you as to why folk become galanthophiles?
    I wouldn’t be bothered, except that they’re such a huge boost in these gloomy months. And once you get into them some of them are really big, and will flower from October to late March.
    An interesting comment about beetles and ants. I have to say that I’ve never spotted any of these in our snowdrop flowers, though I do see tiny black flies sometimes. Now you’ve got me wondering when beetles and ants become active? And are there species, like early bumblebees that are able to move around at lower temperatures?

  5. The naturalised snowdrops are an amazing sight. I did not realise they would be so happy in such shady spots, another reason that makes them so special. Your spring garden is so colourful and full of life despite your low temperatures. Amelia

    • Thanks Amelia,
      The wild snowdrops were an amazing sight. Do you have wild ones near you? I’ve noticed the specialist UK bulb nurseries are sourcing some of their new cultivars from Normandy. I’m going back to see just how shady the spot is in the summer, but it must be pretty dark on the bank during summer,

      • I am not aware of any snowdrops near us. The reason is possibly that I am unaware. Perhaps also the French style chateaux preferred more formal gardening? I certainly would like some more now I have cleared undergrowth from under some trees. Amelia

      • Hello Amelia, I’m sure they’d love it under your trees. Maybe try and get some in the green, around now, and then thoroughly water them for 2 to 3 weeks if you get any dry spells after planting. The only ones we’ve had problems with were early on when I didn’t do this, and also any planted as dry bulbs,

  6. Hi Julian, your reply did not come up on the new right hand side notifications bit, so I have gone back into your post today, I’d like to understand a great deal more about all forms of pollinators, there is always so much to learn. The visit did help, I can’t imagine I will be hooked as generally I like everything, rather than pursue one thing. Have a lovely week.

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