Fertility and Frostkist; Historic Snowdrop Hunt, Vertigo and The Charge of The Light Brigade.

Fiona often reminds me of the danger of using the word “never” when referring to natural events. No sooner had I written that I’d never seen bumblebees visit snowdrop flowers in our garden, than I spotted one determined to prove me wrong.SDIM6189 (2)

No sooner had I worked out that many daffodil cultivars are sterile, and never set seed – in particular to my immense frustration, the lovely early Narcissus cyclamineus ‘Jetfire’ (above), and hence there’s very little point in dead heading them – than I find 2 single pods last summer with what looked like a few viable ‘Jetfire’ seeds in them.S1000013 (2)

Last year, ‘Jetfire’ wasn’t the only daffodil to do this for the first time with us. Many of the older cultivars which I’ve acquired over the last few years, also produced a few seed pods.SDIM6329 (2)

So having collected the pods in summer, I waited until September and then took the advice gleaned from the excellent Scottish Rock Garden Club (SRGC) bulb log, and sowed them about half way down a 2 litre pot, and topped up with compost and a layer of vermiculite, so the seeds were really deep in the compost layer. Click here for a great review article by Ian Young, on why dead heading of daffodils, etc. is unnecessary, and why all gardeners should save and sow their own bulb seeds.SDIM6222 (2)

They germinated brilliantly in late autumn, and with the mild winter and a bit of protection with enviromesh and some thermal store water bottles, have just kept on growing. But for weeks, the ‘Jetfire’ pot was devoid of seedlings. So, assuming the seeds were indeed sterile, I plonked in some box cuttings, round the edge of the pot. Then, there was great excitement, when about half a dozen bright green shoots, of variable vigour, appeared. SDIM6224 (2)It’ll be years, before they ever produce any flowers, but is another example that being so definite about a plant’s fertility is a risky business.SDIM6094 (2)

Interestingly, the other advantage alluded to in Ian’s article, is that sowing your own seed soon after harvesting can gain you at least a year – I ordered several packets of seed (Narcissi, Cyclamen, Crocus included) from the excellent SRGC seed exchange this year, and finally got round to sowing them in mid February. So far there has been no germination, so I suspect that they won’t now start to grow until next winter or spring at the earliest. Ian suggests leaving seedlings in their original pots for 3 years, to pick up bulbs from seed that doesn’t germinate in years 1 or 2.SDIM6334 (2)

With all such thoughts about fertility, we really shouldn’t have been so relaxed about “BO”, our barren ewe. 3 and a half years old now, she’d never lambed, and had never even been colour marked by any of the rams before, so was clearly an infertile ewe, who we only kept as a convenient well-behaved companion for Doublet our ram. Like most animals, sheep hate being on their own.SDIM6131 (2)

Throughout the autumn, she’d been grazing with Doublet until he was raddled and put in with the rest of the ewes in mid-December – since we’re trying for much later lambing this year. She did get marked with red raddle in late December, as Doublet jumped onto her back in a dive for extra food from a bucket, but we knew this and didn’t expect any lambs later in May.SDIM6187 (2)

We’d had them all in for ear tagging about a month ago, she’s had no supplementary feed – and we’d not noticed anything significant, (oops), so it was a real shock when Fiona dashed in after a spell of wood chopping, with the news that Bo had delivered a lamb. Barren she no longer is. And we’ll have to rethink suitable field mates for Doublet from now on.

I have previous veterinary memories of fears of being wrong on such matters – a final year practical cow pregnancy diagnosis exam, with Dr. David, our external examiner, comes to mind. I described what I was feeling through the rectal wall, hoping to fudge things and at least gain some marks.

“But is she pregnant or not? That’s all the farmer wants to know”, was Dr. David’s cutting but sensible response to my vacillations.

Or once, soon after being let out onto the front line, in small animal practice, the obese retriever, with a history of false pregnancies, presenting with milk and behavioural signs. Not able to feel anything with abdominal palpation through the layers of fat, I informed the owners, after serious quizzing about whether a mating could have occurred, that I thought it was indeed another false pregnancy.

2 days later 2 healthy pups arrived.

Like life, death and taxes, whether or not an animal is pregnant is one of life’s certainties which will indeed eventually reveal itself, in spite of what you might believe. No fudging. No ducking or diving. No never.

Right or wrong. But valuable lessons learned of the need for humility. We all make mistakes.

As wonderfully written by L.M. Montgomery in ‘Anne of Green Gables’ :

“Marilla, isn’t it nice to think that tomorrow is a new day with no mistakes in it yet?”

SDIM6193 (2)

Since her pretty ewe lamb arrived on a very frosty morning, and we are onto daffodil names beginning with ‘F’s’, for any lambs born this year, ‘Frostkist’ seems an entirely appropriate name for her.SDIM6173 (2)She’s going to have a long wait though, for any young companions to join her in her high speed dashes across the slopes. Fortunately, Doublet seems quite happy with the new arrival, so the trio can be left together for now. A rarely observed ovine two parent family unit.SDIM6159 (2)

I was very grateful for those readers and friends, who warned me about the likely prolonged recovery time from my vertigo problem. It has only recently almost completely resolved. For anyone reading this who suffers a similar episode, I found a mine of useful information and suggestions at the site maintained by Chicago based medic, and “dizziness” specialist Dr. Tim Hain, which you can access by clicking here.SDIM6176 (2)

Inevitably, for such a condition with many possible causes, appreciating its potential multi-factorial origins can be both helpful, and, occasionally, confusing. But applying some of his information to my case, brought about a few helpful changes to my routines. Amongst these are reducing tea, coffee and banning chocolate (a contributory trigger I’m sure in my case) – all pharmacologically similar methylxanthine chemicals with potential impacts on the vestibular apparatus; avoiding prolonged bending over (difficult for gardeners); using an extra pillow in bed; considering head posture whilst using a computer or playing the piano – very easy to develop bad habits here, as I realised I had; and finally wearing a balaclava or beanie hat whilst outside at this time of the year.SDIM6148 (2)

I’m guessing that many ladies reading this will be blessed with pretty good natural hair insulation around the back of the ear – if you see what I mean. Sadly, my lack of follicles, or styling, means that I’m not so protected, but a balaclava does make a real difference, in wintry conditions.

And also provides a questionable link to the Crimea, and my snowdrop hunt.SDIM6116 (2)

Knitted balaclavas were apparently developed to protect the troops through the severe winters encountered during the Crimean war. The actual battle of Balaclava took place on October 25th 1854, as a part of the siege of Sevastopol, and included the infamous ‘Charge of The Light Brigade’. Click here, for a fascinating insight into the battle and this period of history.SDIM6008 (2)

This area of the Crimea, and its links with British military history, is also claimed as being the time when some of the more exotic species of snowdrops first reached the UK, after soldiers returning home, dug up bulbs to bring back as souvenirs. And here, I must include a link to a fascinating project by plant explorer Tom Mitchell, kindly sent to me by Sarah and Amanda. Since last autumn, Tom has been criss crossing the Balkans, Turkey, the Caucasus, and Russia to try to find and photograph flowering examples of all of the 20 plus species of snowdrops, in their native environments, in a single flowering season – which stretches from autumn to spring.SDIM6016 (2)

His blog, tiltled ‘Revolution Snowdrops’, is well worth a look and read, even if you’re not a snowdrop nut, since he writes about much more than just the snowdrops. It’s also great for seeing how many of these bulbs coexist, in natural woodland communities, with other early spring gems like Cyclamen coum, Hepaticas and Hellebores. And as gardeners trying to create similar displays, we can all glean something more about the best conditions to try to grow these beautiful early spring flowers. Click here for his blog.S1010002 (2)

Regular readers will already know about my own, much more modest hunt, for historic Welsh origin snowdrops, and now seems a good time to write a little more about it, since it will soon go dormant for 2016, as indeed the bulbs’ above ground interest does, until the following year.S1020003 (2)

I need to begin by saying that I couldn’t have achieved and seen what I already have, without the fantastic help and support of lots of people. It has far exceeded my imagination in its interest. I shall thank many of my collaborators here, in no particular order, and please excuse any omissions: Loveday and Matthew, Kelly and Janine, Keith, Jane, Joseph and Emma, Tanya and Stephen, Ros and Laurence, Phil, Tom and Gil, Helen, Bryn and Liz, Gwenda, Jean, Sue, Jenny, Linda, Alma, John and Nia, Amanda and Enzo, Robert, and Sarah. Not forgetting the ever-cheerful Fiona, who has accompanied me on my trips, and often took the photos.S1010001 (2)

There is clearly scope for many years of effort here, given that it’s severely restricted by season, weather, time and economic constraints in any one year. But it’s also already obvious to me that as well as the diversity of snowdrop forms encountered – almost all just plain Galanthus nivalis, but nearly all showing subtle differences in size, flowering times, leaf form, colour and even markings – the stories behind the locations, and the intrigue behind how or why the snowdrops came to be there in the first place, are even more fascinating.S1010007 (2)

Somehow, for now, this blog doesn’t feel the right format to try to cover this ground – partly it’s far too incomplete a picture for now, and partly some sites are very private and special, and some owners understandably wish them to remain so. But for future garden visitors, some of these details can probably be communicated, and in time I shall try to work at recording and researching them a little more. There is also still the issue of arranging DNA genome coding on example bulbs. But I now at least have a couple of leads to follow up on this issue.SDIM6025 (2)

However, I’ve included in this post just a few images from our travels this year, as a glimpse, or perhaps portal, into the mysterious subject of historic Welsh snowdrops.S1000012 (2)

What I can say, is that we’ve encountered several strange beasts, and some really lovely folk, along the way.S1010006 (2)S1000006 (3)S1000008 (2)S1000007 (2)S1000009 (2a) (2)SDIM6030 (2abc) (2)

Heard of shipwrecks, and seen and read of cat-o’-nine tails, and how Victorian British sailors had to make their own tools of punishment, which assuming there was “enough space to swing a cat”, would take place, oncethe cat was out of the bag“. Go and visit The Bosun’s Locker in New Quay, to see one. Thanks to Brian for background on this.S1050040 (3)

Learned of mediaeval kings, and nuns and apparitions.S1000001 (2)

Heard of early armour making and battles.S1010003 (2)

And churches washed into the sea.S1050030 (2)

Seen old castles and slate works.S1010008 (2)And links to the only Welsh Prime Minister.

S1010005 (2)

And are beginning to wonder why the only examples of the double snowdrops we’ve seen so far, are located just beyond the boundaries of very old churches or chapels?S1020001 (2)

And why some of the latest flowering snowdrops we’ve seen are just yards from the sea?S1000020 (2)Whilst some of the earliest grow high up, inland?S1040031 (2)

In a final link, I’m very grateful to Phil, who sent us details of another Julian’s (Williams) recent fascinating blog, from Pembrokeshire, about the secret history of snowdrops in European literature and culture. Click here for more. It does seem that for centuries, Northern Europeans have really valued these tiny, but tough, first white flowers of the year, and wanted to have them growing in places that they love. I like to think that some of the samples we’ve been generously allowed to take, or which have been brought to us, to grow at Gelli Uchaf, do indeed carry with them some of the magic of their former homes.S1000021 (2)

And in this first, and sometimes for me, slightly wobbly, snowdrop hunt season, should any bulbs prove sufficiently interesting to multiply up, and name, sadly I couldn’t select the rather appropriate ‘Vertigo’ as a moniker. Why?S1000002 (2)

Well, it’s already been chosen.  Click here for an image of this form of Galanthus nivalis, from the excellent Judy’s snowdrops pages.

Perhaps vertigo is indeed a commonly encountered occupational risk for all galanthophiles?

Maybe ‘Vortex’, would be an alternative name for me to use?S1000010 (2a) (2)Finally, I must provide a specific link and thank you to Ffynone Mansion in Pembrokeshire. This is the private residence of Robert Lloyd George, but you are able to visit either the garden only for a National Gardens Scheme Open day on Sunday May 1st, or Saturday and Sunday June 4th and 5th. (Sadly, the property was sold shortly after our visit, and is now not open to the public, so as often seems to be the case with my snowdrop hunt, a special door, or window, or portal, into another world, has slammed shut).

S1010004 (2)Or the house and garden with a larger group, for a private tour on other days. We were extremely fortunate, and very grateful, to be shown round by Amanda and Enzo, and the John Nash Grade 1 listed house and gardens are completely unique and beautiful – well worth a trip.

18 thoughts on “Fertility and Frostkist; Historic Snowdrop Hunt, Vertigo and The Charge of The Light Brigade.

  1. Your snowdrop hunt this year was eventful and fruitful. I can understand your fascination with them even as a snowdrop fancier with hardly any snowdrops. I think limiting chocolate is a bit of an extreme decision. Your new lamb is a real beauty and must be the more welcome coming so unexpectedly. Amelia

    • Hello Amelia,
      Frostkist is indeed a beauty. As for limiting chocolate, it’s a heck of a lot better being chocolate deprived, than feeling unsteady all the time! Actually I do still have coffee, but switched to decaff…so no real burden on that one. I’m basically a creature of routine, so find it quite easy to make any such switches, if I feel the benefits are worthwhile, and I’ve thought for ages, that what we take into our bodies has a huge impact on our general state of mind, and well being, so often consider dietary causes in health and disease. Unlike, in my experience, most medics on this side of La Manche, at least !
      It’s a real shame the snowdrops have finished, but equally the gardening year is accelerating, so no time for such frivolity now,
      Best wishes

      • Meant to say I did a similar experiment in 2014 with some bulb seedlings in 2014 and they are coming up for the second year. Also I have one Rosa glauca from your seeds. It is still in a pot as I am still agonising about where best to plant it.

      • We are always very proud of the plants we have raised from seed. Every time you look at a tree you have grown from seed you cannot help but stop and marvel at its size.

  2. What a joyful post Julian, you had me smiling throughout. Nature is a constant surprise! I have bookmarked the link to Ian Young’s site to go back into. Its hard to find bulbs and seed grown organically and I like the idea of doing this myself. Your new lamb has her mothers markings, what breed is this, she is quite lovely.
    Good luck with your Snow drop research, you constantly delight me with your thoughtful, intelligent and informative posts, I really enjoy reading about your thought processes on this. I’m glad your vertigo is clearing up too, interesting that its linked to tea and chocolate, my mother in law suffers a lot from this, she was recently widowed and its those two things that get her through most days. I’ve bookmarked that link too. I always wear a hat and with todays chilly weather its definitely still needed.

    • Thanks for the comment Julie,
      Our sheep are variants of Welsh Mountains called Badger Faced – there are 2 forms, ours are called Tor Ddu – meaning black belly. They’re a well mannered lot, and all have facial markings that mean it’s fairly easy to recognise each one…and as you spotted, the lambs often inherit quite similar markings.
      It’s still really chilly here too….the early daffodils are lasting longer than I can ever remember. Re the vertigo, I thought I’d mention the link, ‘cos it’s one of those subjects where a GP really has so little time in a consult to communicate potential causes, and helpful things one can do – I always feel if you can do something, it makes you feel a bit more up beat, even if the problem doesn’t go away completely. In this regard the link is excellent. bits of it are a bit technical, but he does seem to cover all possible options, including a series of movements which one can easily make, and which in some cases will sort things completely….in my case, though I think there was certainly a bit of inflammatory change.
      I wish I could say more about the snowdrop’s background info…maybe someday, somewhere – it’s a real ongoing detective story for me , I think…
      Best wishes

      • Anything is worth trying with my Mother in Law, she is been driven potty by this and GP’s are not always the best person to consult. She is proactive and will be interested in this research, plus and sometimes annoyingly still has the sharpest of minds, so will tackle the technical stuff better than me! Thanks Julian, hope some warmer Spring weather heads your way soon.

  3. Hi Julian, as usual a post overflowing with so much that it is difficult to know where to start. The Head Gardener is probably of the same vintage as you and is never without a hat on cold windy days, but equally has to be reminded to wear a sunhat on sunny days! However, which ever of your strategies is the reason for your improvement, I’m pleased you’re feeling better.
    I grow most of my planst from seed and neve miss an opportunity to collect seed from our own plants. It is always best to plant the seed asp, but some need a couple of winters to break the dormancy. So don’t give up to soon.

    • Hello Christine,
      Thanks for that. I always have some sort of hat on, even in the summer…but it’s taken this episode to make me realise my usual one just doesn’t keep my ears warm enough!
      I think saving, sowing and growing on seed from some sort of plant should become a core subject for all school children. It amazes me that so many of our high fliers who wield the sticks over us, have never experienced the joys, and challenges of this vital life process,
      I do hope you’re drying out a bit…we too are finding that after such a wet winter, even a small amount of rain gets the ground back to being a soggy mess again…
      Best wishes

  4. Another amazing post- so much of interest to read and enjoy. Your photos are amazing and often give me ideas for painting…if only I didn’t have all the chores to do! Pleased you are feeling better.

    • Thanks Marianne,
      The idea of painting is one I’m kicking around at the moment. I can’t, but Fiona can…but doesn’t have time. I’d love artists to be able to visit the garden and perhaps be inspired to create some great paintings… but how to do?? F’s also just back from the RA’s Painting the Garden Exhibition…so more inspiration and thoughts for me from the accompanying great exhibition book,
      best wishes

  5. What a wonderful post! So much of everything, and the photographs are stunning. I love the little lamb, what a cutie! And the daffodils! Ant the portal! 🙂

Comments are closed.