Me, or you, by the end of this?

Let’s get the word out of the way first. Apparently derived by combining “over”, with the Middle English verb “whelmen”, meaning to overturn, turn upside down, or submerge completely. Click here for more from etymonline.com :

“Perhaps the connecting notion is a boat, etc., washed over, and overset, by a big wave. Figurative sense of “to bring to ruin” is attested from 1520s.”

But how does this link snowdrops, ditching, spillover, a West Wales beach, TGE and Dr. Tom Alexander? Let’s begin a typical rambling odyssey.

For any readers hoping for me to give an update on likely snowdrop garden opening dates this year, hang on in there, and hope for a weather window. This morning we had an interesting variant of pinkish grey and wet.

For the first time since I’ve measured rainfall here, we’ve had five consecutive months, from September to January, each with over 200 mm of monthly rainfall, and only 20 dry days over this time. Or as I prefer to explain this to people, think of pouring six and a half litre bottles of water onto each and every square metre of our land, every day for the last five months.

That’s what our land has had to cope with.

The snowdrops can cope remarkably well.

The Daphne bholua are loving it.And eventually I’ve managed to produce quite a few young layered plants from this gorgeously scented shrub, after 18 months of trying to sever suckering roots, before lifting the small plants and potting on.  A possible treat for garden visitors in due course?

Even the bees are out and about infrequently, but in numbers, in the rare drier moments. But frankly things are very sodden, and even with our grass matting on sections of path, are sadly just too wet to allow any visitors at present both from their, and the garden’s, perspective.

At some point I guess the rain or hail will pause and things will dry out a little. For now, ditching continues to be a healthy form of therapy for us both (guess who did each of the above? – mine is the untidy top one, Fiona’s the neater, deeper lower one) Plus for me there’s the self-imposed recording of the annual wave of snowdrop flower opening.

I’ve managed to make good progress with updating the records on line this year, with many more of the Welsh Historic Snowdrop Hunt (WHSH) snowdrops featuring. Click here and here for the early and mid-snowdrop listings and photos.

In some ways this has been a bigger task than producing my moth diary, all those years ago. What’s struck me as a result of all this frankly tedious and nerdy recording is how for the vast majority of snowdrops their relative flowering times is really very consistent.

In addition, if left undisturbed in one location, the time for the first flower to emerge in a particular clump (usually in a specific tyre which makes this an easier process for me to record) typically seems to advance by a very few days each year. Though there’s obviously a limit for how long this will continue for.

If the bulbs are split and divided, they typically flower later during the following year. Possibly in part because the bulbs end up being a little deeper in the ground after such replanting.

What’s happening to cause this subtle advance in flowering times in undisturbed clumps? Probably that each year if all is well with the individual plant, a new bulb will form above last year’s, as the leaves shrivel and the stem base plumps out to form the bulb. This must place the newer bulb a centimetre or so closer to the soil surface, and presumably the marginally warmer conditions trigger slightly earlier flower initiation and growth the following season. This apparently exquisitely temperature sensitive growth pattern is a big strategic advantage for the plant. Why?

Well, it means that as a clump enlarges, the range of days when flowers will be open will tend to increase, and so maximise the (very rare) opportunities for pollination and seed set by these very early flowering bulbs – at least in our damp climate.

The other thing that inevitably happens over time is clumps can become congested, and new bulblets will form which might then have to battle their way to the surface past a mass of tight bulbs sitting above them. On the very same day that we gave my snowdrop talk to Cardigan Horticultural Society mid-month, I found this fantastic example of just how much force a growing snowdrop shoot can cope with.

Here one lower bulb had drilled its shoot right up through the very centre of a partly damaged, but otherwise entirely hard, snowdrop bulb in a bid to reach the light. With several keen botanists in the audience, I once more raised the issue of whether the white growing tips of snowdrop leaves which I first described in a post last year, might have some as yet unexplained biochemical or functional adaptation to cope with such forces.

I still can’t find any satisfactory references to these white tips on line. Maybe folk are beavering away with relevant research as I write? I did read last month in Country Life magazine, Alan Titchmarsh mysteriously describing snowdrops as having “reinforced tips”, yet with no more detail of what is actually going on at a cellular level. If any reader can enlighten me about snowdrop leaf tip whiteness or reinforcement, then do please get in touch.

As I write this on the last day of January, we’ve anyway passed the halfway mark with different snowdrops appearing (220), and the very early ones are already beginning to fade from the scene. I’ve survived the sometimes overwhelming sense of losing track of what to photograph, and where to record it, much better this year. Minimal additions should also help in years to come.

However, on a garden scale the majority, in terms of numbers of flowers, have still to open, so fingers crossed the weather will improve soon.

I noticed by chance that the Gelli Uchaf snowdrops have also got an unsolicited plug and link in Country Life magazine this week (as a complete surprise to these humble gardeners). It’ll be very disappointing therefore if only a few visitors can make it up to see them this year.

At least such conditions are great for lifting, splitting and dividing snowdrops with no issues of drought stress or freezing to worry about.


By a pure fluke, we’d planned three nights away on the coast which coincided with the only two gloriously sunny and frosty dry days mid-month. Arriving at fabulous Poppit sands for a bracing low tide walk, the damage from recent storm Brendan was still evident in the high tide line of debris including a few complete tree trunks. I mentioned to Fiona we should keep our eyes opened for any washed out snowdrop bulbs. Within 30 seconds she’d spotted one. The only one we saw in an hour and a half of walking.

The fabulous wheeling oystercatcher flock.Probably outshone the visual impact of the always wonderful and variable sand patterns which spread across the huge expanse of deserted beach.

More largely monochrome avian delights the following day with a young heron staked out on, and in, the river Nevern and a magpie on the churchyard yews.

Later cliff top views near Penbryn were stunning, and shadows long.

And a pair of shiny black, pink billed choughs called overhead, strangled seagull-like, click here,  before one landed in the field opposite and began probing with its thin red beak.

Back home the wagtails are beginning to strut their stuff along the ridge tiles.


In spite of the wet, spring bulbs are appearing in numbers now, with a typically varied range of Crocus flowers, Cyclamen coum are in full flow,And the first Iris reticulata and Scilla mischtschenkoana have emerged – such outrageous colour, so early in the year.

There are early signs that my strategy of planting Crocus sieberi ‘Firefly’ corms beneath daffodils in the now renamed multicultural meadow terrace garden hasn’t been a complete disaster. Several have already emerged having forced their shoots past the larger and toxic bulbs. Whether many will fail in their mission to skirt around what’s above them remains to be seen.


So finally, onto TGE.

Whilst away we watched an excellent and provocative documentary by Chris Packham on BBC Two Horizon – 7.7 billion people and Counting. Click here for the iPlayer link if you didn’t see it. Amongst the most shocking scenes were those filmed in the shanty slums built on the edge of Lagos, a huge sprawling growing city. Here the poorest exist, cheek by jowl, in simple home built wooden shacks constructed on wooden piles, just feet above a watery lagoon topped with layers of rubbish.

With that image still fresh in my mind, we’ve followed the recent reports of the new and unexpected respiratory disease emerging in China, caused by a coronavirus.

This was a memo jog back to veterinary pathology days at Cambridge, and in particular TGE (Transmissible gastroenteritis), a contagious gut disease affecting pigs, cause by a coronavirus. Much of our clinical pathology and pig medicine lectures were given by the highly regarded and genial white coated Dr. Tom Alexander, (click here for his involvement with the pig industry). I had a very clear picture of Dr. Alexander from all those years ago, and in particular remembered his nickname amongst a few fellow students, because of his special way of pronouncing noo moaaan yah.

He had much acquired experience from his pig production consultative travels to Asia and emphasized to students the risks of keeping pigs intensively over there. In particular the challenge of humidity and temperature stresses which rendered pigs very susceptible to respiratory infections when housed in close proximity. (Read this article in The New York Times, for more detail on why the Chinese pig industry has collapsed over the last 18 months as a result of a massive African Swine Fever (ASF) outbreak, under the title “Why Did One-Quarter of the World’s Pigs Die in a Year?”  And make an assessment of whether the Chinese state system, let alone ours, is likely to be up to managing the current coronavirus scenario.Curiously, although humans aren’t affected by the ASF virus, they can help to disseminate it by acting as vectors, and the above article explains the role of mass movements of pigs and people in spreading the infection.

The SARS (Sudden Acute Respiratory Syndrome) outbreak of 2002 was also caused by a coronavirus. Probably because I had less free time on my hands, I don’t recall being as worried by that. In any event, global movement and populations were much lower back then. The final figures for SARS from the NHS website are apparently 8,098 reported cases of SARS and 774 deaths. A useful reference for how we should view the potential seriousness of this current coronavirus outbreak.

So I was interested to read that since my student days days over 40 years ago, another porcine respiratory coronavirus PRCV has been identified, which whilst clinically not a significant disease risk to pigs, nevertheless can travel huge distances on the wind. To quote more from this link.

PRCV is respiratory-spread and believed to travel long distances, and because of this, it is extremely difficult to maintain herds free from it. Very few countries have not been exposed.


National importation programmes – Individual countries which are free from this infection and TGE will only import pigs that are sero-negative for TGE and PRCV.

In 2012 David Quammen wrote Spillover : Animal Infections and the Next Human Pandemic,  (click here for a really interesting in depth review/interview with the author about his work), a book exploring the theme of novel human diseases and how they frequently arise as zoonoses – a familiar word to any vet, and meaning diseases transmissible between animals and man. The PR for his book reads thus:

“The next big human pandemic―the next disease cataclysm, perhaps on the scale of AIDS or the 1918 influenza―is likely to be caused by a new virus coming to humans from wildlife. Experts call such an event “spillover” and they warn us to brace ourselves. David Quammen has tracked this subject from the jungles of Central Africa, the rooftops of Bangladesh, and the caves of southern China to the laboratories where researchers work in space suits to study lethal viruses. He illuminates the dynamics of Ebola, SARS, bird flu, Lyme disease, and other emerging threats and tells the story of AIDS and its origins as it has never before been told. Spillover reads like a mystery tale, full of mayhem and clues and questions. When the Next Big One arrives, what will it look like? From which innocent host animal will it emerge? Will we be ready?”

It’s been just a month since the WHO was notified by the Chinese about this new disease. Last night saw the WHO declaring that this disease is now viewed as a global health emergency. They’re particularly worried about its impact in countries with poor health services and living conditions. I do fear for communities like that featured by Packham in Lagos, and sincerely hope that I’m not being unnecessarily pessimistic about this.

Yet with (officially declared) clinical cases and mortality figures increasing by 25 % per day in China, and the world beginning to (rightly in my opinion) lock down, I hope that this doesn’t turn out to be as bad as I fear. If it were to become so, all bets are off.

Where is our Palantir?

Monday saw me (hopefully irrationally) making our biggest investment changes ever on a single day – we have no company pension to rely on!

Life for a time could change very dramatically as we can already see is happening across China.

(Current FTSE 100 @ 7420; first UK case declared 31/01/2020; on January 31, the novel coronavirus total case count surpassed that for SARS which only ever affected 8,096 people worldwide: current figures are 9826 cases, 213 deaths, 20 countries with confirmed cases – WHO Novel Coronavirus 2019-nCoV Situation Report – 11, click here. ).


Figurative sense of “to bring to ruin” ?

Let’s hope this isn’t how the (new) roaring twenties begin.


With many Pembrokeshire snowdrops still safe and snug below ground, perhaps Whelm would be a good name for this charming little Ceredigion origin snowdrop. Lifting the mood in January from my WHSH, it’s now flowering well here for the first time in this new home, away from the floods of the Teifi valley.

At this stage of flower development, the ov(e)ary is almost longer than its already opened, and at this stage very narrow, white petals.

Yet it certainly doesn’t ove(a)r – whelm them.

How will it change over the next few weeks?

By the time the flower has faded, will we all have forgotten about coronaviruses for another few years?

The Earthtongues still speak, beneath the croquet hoops.



14 thoughts on “Overwhelmed?

  1. Hi Julian, I read your blog feeling this really is close to home, the flight bringing the British and European folk fleeing from China landed about 15 miles from where I now live and my village is very reliant on tourism. I am a vegetarian, animal welfare and food consumption, is such a tangled mess and its heartbreaking to read of huge scale pig production, but doubtless thats hard to read if you are a meat eater too. What frightening times we live in.
    I love to see the colour in your garden, wonderful considering the wet conditions, its a constant bog in the fields here, so have been road walking and one of the perks is seeing the huge quantities of snowdrops in the verges. Best wishes, Julie

    • Thanks Julie. Great to hear from you, and really difficult to try to get all this into perspective isn’t it? I can quite see that tourism could take a real hit from this unless it comes to a speedy resolution. I guess with my ex vet hat on, I do contrast the options available for animal disease control, and generally worry about how on earth the NHS would cope with a major infectious disease outbreak, given how stretched it is anyway. Having recently watched “Chernobyl” and reading the NYT article on AFS in China, I do even wonder just how widespread the disease might be over there. As for food production, we too increasingly worry about origins and productions systems. Our ( belated) new year resolution is to stop eating salmon, after reading about the staggering monthly mortality rates involved…along with lots of other issues!
      But hey ho, the human population is probably well overdue for a big knock back.
      Fascinating to hear that things are so wet with you too… we’re used to it here really and it is remarkable how a lot of plants seem to cope amazingly well,
      best wishes

      • I stopped eating fish before becoming a vegetarian, the prospect of micro plastic ingested at the same time put me off and from there that led to completely giving up any thing that has lived. Yesterday when walking I saw a local dairy farm with at least 50 cows in a tiny body touching body space, they looked utterly dejected and as I am heading towards vegan, those moments spur me on.
        The soil here is brash, limestone with areas of clay, and a high water table, its pretty much a bog especially where there is livestock. I remember a lady on your day with Noel saying she had moved to Wales because there will always be water and the rest of the country likely to be in drought. I thought she may have been pulling my leg, but probably not!
        Good luck with your pop up opening.
        Best wishes,

      • Thanks Julie, and I can quite understand the rationality and purpose behind vegetarianism, and I agree about much of the dairy industry – I ‘m so frustrated that I can’t buy single farm un-homogenised milk locally. There’s a pioneering farmer (The Ethical Dairy) who’s developing a great humane system for milk production, but he’s in Scotland and all his milk ends up in cheese. As with so many things price and cost pressures have driven mega scale businesses where welfare and quality seem very low priorities. Looks like we have our max. numbers for Thursday, so fingers crossed the weather stays benign-ish,
        best wishes

  2. Snowdrops! Lovely- Spring is on its way, though I suspect we’ll have one or two cold setbacks along the way. Love the photos 😊

    • Thanks Alastair – as I say in my snowdrop talk introduction, if we hadn’t moved here, I’d never have got interested in Welsh snowdrops, since 90% of those I’ve seen much further South in Pembs. are still a way off flowering – pretty nippy up here now,
      best wishes

  3. Nice to see your snowdrops again. We have been laid low with a virus for the past two weeks but are nearing the end of the tunnel. Amelia

  4. Gosh…it’s taken me a day to read and enjoy your post! Absolutely love the snowdrop photos and the beach views are very interesting…I’ll have to be more observant! Hopefully, the world will take a deep breath and sort itself out…!

  5. Pingback: Hope Springs Eternal in the Human Breast | thegardenimpressionists

Comments are closed.