Snowdrop blizzard

THE first massed flower display of a new year has arrived and what a spectacular sight it is – the snowdrops are in full bloom!

Estates around the country are opening their grounds for public viewing throughout February, but there can be few places better than our own Howick Hall gardens.

Snowdrops at Howick.

Snowdrops at Howick.

The grounds are open now from Wednesday to Sunday, 10.30am to 4pm, and when I visited last week with Lionheart Radio presenter Carl Stiansen, for the Weekending Show, what an uplifting experience it was.

We met head gardener Robert Jamieson by appointment and recorded a piece to go on air that afternoon.

Of course, there’s much more to Howick than the snowdrops. Feed Howick Hall Gardens into an online search and the story unfolds. For gardeners there’s a month-by-month diary of plant highlights revealed by the click of a mouse. Flip over the pages from the Snowdrop Festival through drifts of April daffodils, on to the woodland garden and beyond.

The Bog Garden, created mainly from seed collected on foreign plant-hunting expeditions, is quite stunning from May/June onwards, which is when the East and West arboreta come into their own with seed-raised trees from around the world. Consider all of this plus the history and a rather special Earl Grey Tearoom. No wonder Howick was rated one of the top five coastal gardens in the country by BBC Gardeners’ World Magazine, and named in the best 10 to visit in spring by the Independent Magazine.

It is so difficult to estimate how many snowdrops there are in the grounds. There are great swathes as far as the eye can see but millions, rather than thousands, spring to mind. This happens most naturally over time. Once they’ve been planted and settled in, the bulbs increase in number annually, and small group plantings bulk up into a mass of white.

The owners of Welford Park, Berkshire, which is highlighted in this month’s RHS magazine The Garden, estimate that their display comes from 10million bulbs. This is based on an assumed density of 300 per square metre, in a woodland area of 2.8 hectares (seven acres).

Galanthus nivalis is the common snowdrop. The name derives from the Greek gala (milk) and anthos (flower). Add to this the specific epithet nivalis (snowy) and you have the perfect description.

But it is wrong to assume that they are all the same. If that were the case why would someone pay £350 for a single bulb of a pure white form, which arose from G. plicatus EA Bowles, as reported in the national press last week?

Think of a flock of sheep. The longer you examine them the more differences you see. Get down to ground level and discover for yourself that although these flowers all look white, there are occasional variations. It may be a bloom of different shape or character, say double rather than single. There may be green or better still, yellow markings on the petals. So many minor variations exist that there is ongoing debate regarding their status. It takes a galanthus specialist to confirm or reject a new discovery.

One thing is certain, such plants are much sought after by galanthophiles (snowdrop collectors). No wonder estates throughout the country have become alert to this and stepped up security in recent years.

One of the problems associated with getting these special variations and some of the popular named cultivars to colonise, is that they are not as easy to grow as G. nivalis – the common version. They can sulk in deep shade and struggle to survive long-term in a pot. Best offer them a sunny spot with reasonable organic content but more importantly, good drainage and no competition for growing space from other plants.

Some snowdrop cultivars have become firm favourites in our winter garden psyche. Think of the double flowering Pusey Green Tip and Ophelia. S Arnott is so popular because it offers large flowers and fragrance but I have a favourite that’s a dream to see up close.

It has a splash of yellow at the apex of inside petals and some call it the North Northumberland Snowdrop because it first occurred naturally in this particular region. That’s how I was introduced to it some decades ago when we visited a lady enthusiast’s garden in the Belford area. But to me it’s Howick Yellow because that’s where we’ve seen it growing to perfection.

Although snowdrop bulbs are sold in their dry state alongside narcissi, tulip, et al when autumn arrives, in my experience they rarely grow as readily as the others. This is why we are always being advised to plant them ‘in the green,’ which means buying clumps offered by nurseries and in the national press just after flowering.

This presents a better chance of survival if they are watered-in to preserve the leaves and their food-making function, so essential to bulb replenishment.

It is often argued that late summer is a better time to lift and replant snowdrop bulbs, because precious roots are broken when lifting in the green thus interrupting the food storage process. Whichever you choose, there will be a greater urge to buy some after a visit to Howick Hall Gardens.

Footnote: Alnwick Garden Club meets next Tuesday in the Town Hall at 7.30pm. Main topic of the evening will be attracting bees and bee-keeping.