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.
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.
Perhaps 3 acres of steep North East facing bank, carpeted with a mass of tallish Galanthus nivalis. 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.
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. 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.
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.
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.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?And I wouldn’t have thought snowdrops would have managed between these large evergreen Bergenia leaves, but doesn’t this combination look beautiful?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.
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.
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.
Returning to the afore mentioned pollinating brush, why do I bother?
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. 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!
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.