by Deborah Puxley
Living in the village of Welford at the heart of the Lambourn Valley you cannot escape the annual anticipation of the first snowdrop bloom. This can be as early as Christmas, and some years not until mid-January. But they are a reliable, hardy little flower which take no notice of world affairs but pop up their tiny pure white heads to say “Hello, spring is coming”, with a naivety that only nature can offer.
Galanthus is the Greek name for snowdrop. This derived from “gala” for milk and “anthus” for flower, and through the ages they have held their own in the ever-growing world of horticulture. You only need to stroll around the beech wood at Welford Park taking in the spectacular carpet and breathing the delicate scent to know this natural phenomenon is not only very special, but a sacred gift. You can’t fail to gaze in wonderment, feel better and have your spirits lifted by this extraordinary sight.
The healing power of Galanthus has long been highly respected and today the oil is harvested as galantamine, and used by the pharmaceutical industry in an Alzheimer’s drug marketed as Riminyl. I have even read on the internet of a mountain village in central Europe where children suffering from symptoms close to poliomyelitis are taken to visit an elderly lady who gives them a concoction made of snowdrops and there is no record of child paralysis in the area. Did you know that they are planted in ancient church yards to herald purity to the souls, and churches were always decorated with snowdrops on 2nd February to celebrate the Feast of Candlemas.
The Lambourn Valley is one of the most prolific natural growing areas for Galanthus, and if you were to take one of our hedgerow blooms to an expert in the Midlands, he would almost certainly tell you “that is a Lambourn Valley specimen!” Why are they here? Well I suspect snowdrops have been here since the Roman settlement at Wickham that Michael Small Wood and Alan Garvey have researched so thoroughly. Then there was the Norman monastery on the side of Welford Park. The Norman monks would certainly have wanted copious quantities not only for Candlemas, but also as a remedy to the “sick-of-head”. They rubbed the oil into the temples, - interesting as that ties up with medicinal uses today.
There are now well over a hundred species of snowdrops and Nivalis is the only one that could be described as indigenous. All the others have been derived from specimens brought home from Crimea and Turkey during the latter half of the Nineteenth Century. There are now horticulturists who specialise in these heavenly little white blooms dissecting every millimetre of the inner and outer segment, ovary, flower, pedical, spathe, scape, leaf, sheath, tunic, root and bulb! They are known as Galanthophiles and they meet regularly during February to discuss the latest additions to the genus!! I certainly cannot claim to have any great knowledge, although I do have a small collection of unusual species. But, to tell the truth, James and I deeply love the natural spread created by God alone and am delighted that so many visitors find pleasure and peace and continue to return year after year.
People often ask what do I look forward to most at this time of year. Obviously, the glorious sight of the beech woods and the heavenly scent is one thing, but a major feature is the fact that young and old come together in the community to help out whether it is in the car park or in the kitchens of the tea rooms. All who work here during snowdrop season work very hard. The hours are long but the atmosphere and the comradeship at the end of ten hours on your feet is tremendous. I have had teenagers telephoning hoping to step into older siblings’ shoes. It is a huge responsibility having so many visitors wanting a lovely day out and keeping them safe happy and well fed. We try to make improvements every year and are continuously busy making new paths to cope with the mud and researching and looking for new winter flowering shrubs.
Cultivation and Care
Always try to buy your bulbs in the ‘green’ and be sure to plant them deep enough. If you are trying to create a good spread of Nivalis, do not be afraid to dig up a clump and gently pull apart the bulb masses and plant individually. Nivalis is probably the quickest snowdrop to naturalise and it will not take many years to have a spread to be proud of. When you dig up a clump to divide, you will notice that the larger mature bulbs have young ones clinging on the side, which have been produced over the year. These will peel off on their own and as they reach maturity. Galanthus reproduction works according to the Fibonacci series, 1-1-2-3-5-8-13 etc.
The snowdrop bulb works very hard as the leaves die down during the spring months. This is the time it not only puts energy into reproducing, but also the next year’s flowerbud is being formed. Hence, get those bulbs in the green planted and settled as soon as possible to ensure success the following year. A common mistake is to plant them too shallow and squirrels and mice remove them.
Nivalis especially, likes to be planted in beech woods and enjoy low-lying valleys with deep chalky loam and riverbanks. They benefit hugely from the tree canopy during the summer months, the heavy fall of leaves creating humus rich soil and protection during the harsh winter months.
If you are planting in a lawn be sure to allow the foliage to die right back before mowing and tidying at the end of Spring, and be prepared to have to wait until early June.