Such a treat, earlier this week, attending one of Kew Gardens’ Meet the Experts Tours.
Every Tuesday throughout the year (or probably pretty much), you are delivered into the hands of one of their Experts for a private tour of one aspect of the work going on at Kew. This month they are talking everything snowdrops (it is Carnivorous plants next month – the link is at the end of the blog for further information).
Small groups, 15 as a usual maximum, and a rather random process of allocating tickets (free – amazing – but no early/pre-booking, open to all and therefore possibly going to be a victim of its own success though there are plans to tweak the system).
This was my first such tour – I attended the Fritillaria Open Day a couple of years ago which gave access to some of the private areas such as the Alpine Yard and this peaked my interest to head there this week. Plus it was such a dull day that I was in danger of staying home and ironing, possibly popping out to the supermarket and wasting my one day off. And it is not everyday that you get to meet such distinguished academics who are giving up their time to talk to us. I shall try to get to the next ones in February and beyond.
My interest in snowdrops is quite general – I appreciate them, go a little out of my way to photograph them whenever I am out and about, pay closer attention at the early RHS Spring Fairs in London – there is one such show next month where they will be exhibited in abundance. But I don’t grow any at home (though this is mostly because of the garden design and lack of open ground) and this, now, may well change (see the RHS Early Spring Show).
I’m not a budding Galanthophile, willing to pay huge sums for a single bulb (the highest price paid for that was over £1,300 last year for a yellow snowdrop called Golden Fleece – references in the links below to Galanthomania – akin to Tulip mania in 16th Century Holland) but some of the more vigorous species and cultivars, well I may find a space for somehow and be a lot more confident of keeping them happy.
But to the tour. We were introduced to Aaron P. Davis, who from his PHD days has had a long-standing interest in snowdrops and his thesis formed the basis of a book in 1999 which he has subsequently updated and which will probably be revised in the years to come. Describing the 20 species and 100 cultivars or so in 1999, the latter figure increased to 250 in the update and soon, this figure may reach 1,000. Plus there is a new species, described by him, Galanthus trojanus – but more of that later.
We began in the Rock Garden where the snowdrop collection was just beginning to show itself. Actually, that is not true – some of the collection was already over for some species begin flowering in November/December and are already sheltering underground now, slumbering. Without looking it up however, I’m afraid I can’t remember the name of the one pointed out – G. reginae-olgae? I do recall photographing a snowdrop in late autumn (for Instagram or Twitter most likely) that had ‘Autumn’ in the name … Autumn Beauty. And it is.
I have talked to folk who have been out snowdrop hunting already this year and Anglesey Abbey for example was already in full spate earlier this month – but it was mostly small pickings in the Rock Garden, compared to later this month and in February which is Peak Season. There were exceptions, such as G. elwesii var monostictus and G. elwesii Three Leaves (which cluster under the beautiful Japanese Maple at the junction of the Rock Garden, mid-way along the Salvia border and the entrance to the Family Beds and Vegetable Garden). Such a naturalistic and healthy grouping. Three Leaves is especially healthy as it has, well, three leaves and can therefore photosynthesise so much more effectively.
Witness the rather more wimpy selection of Wendy’s Gold. The yellow snowdrops are in the present age, perhaps the most sought-after but lack the vigour of their greener – or grey/glaucous-leaved cousins. As garden plants, these yellow-fellows have much less appeal. A pink snowdrop? Well apparently there was great interest in the 18th Century that it may exist but proved to be a hoax. If I ever do come across one, I shall be able to retire comfortably I should think.
Walking through the Rock Garden, Mr Davis talked about some of the 21 species (now) of snowdrop and their natural geographical spread in more southern parts of Europe, heading east into Russia and Crimea, and through Turkey and beyond. Not all grow where we might expect – in chill climes with winter snows. There are water-loving stream-side species, one that finds it home a mere 10 meters from the sea, alpine and arid desert denizens as well as cool woodlands stretching across the continent.
He spoke about the trade in snowdrops – the most, and second-most, traded bulbs in the world are snowdrops, mostly coming out of Turkey. He having visited some of these collecting grounds has the conclusion – for these most common varieties – is that is is most likely a sustainable process. He met three generations of one family who supplemented their winter income by collection wild bulbs in the mountains – and the grandfathers’ grandfather was involved in the same trade. It becomes dangerous only where bulbs of much less common species are being purloined, thinking they are the common horde.
And taxonomy is the key to this. The distinct differences between snowdrop species can be difficult to fathom and part of Kew’s remit is to correctly identify each specimen – DNA comes into this now, as one part of the process – but it can be a difficult interpretation. The papers you can see being held in one of the images above represent the DNA timeline and classification for the different species. While this is the Kew standard now, much of taxonomy comes down to whether you like ‘big boxes or small boxes’ as Tom Freeth (our co-host) put it – large groupings with a continuum of variance in them, or lots of small distinct groups. Fraught, it all is.
Aaron Davis’ 1999 book is available from Amazon for some £15 so I might start back there (the revised edition is not available on that site but haven’t looked elsewhere as yet). Perhaps my favourite Fara charity bookshop in Teddington will come up trumps one day!).
Our co-host for the tour was the superintendent of the Rock Garden and Alpine House, Tom Freeth, and he took into the Davies Alpine House first and then into the working heart of the Alpine nursery, the Alpine Yard. A collection of glasshouses, polytunnels and open-sided but protected spaces with great sand-filled benches on massive rollers.
The first picture is of Tom holding one of their pots of Galanthus trojanus.The flowers are not yet open – visitors on later tours this month may be fortunate to see it fully open.
Tom talked about their work on growing the snowdrop collection and sharing material with other institutions; how they grow and multiple – and how you can divide them or otherwise increase their stock; growing snowdrops in terracotta pots (which they don’t really like); commercial techniques of growing them in aquatic pots – those large rectangular plastic pots with slits all around, plunged into sand; how they are very temperature-sensitive; how they grow by extension rather than division, pumping water into their cells to extend the leaves, flowers etc.,; the Alpine potting mix of equal parts loam, coir, grit and sand; how the bulbs in pots are very heavily fed during their growing season – the roots extend to the edge of the pot and then down and in such a free-draining mixture, much of the goodness just washes straight through the pots…. ;
….. deadheading is a must if significant amounts of energy are not to be diverted into seed-production; their close association with the snowflake, Leucojum aestevum and L. vernum and a new one on me, previously also a snowflake in the same Genus of Leucojum though much smaller, now in its own genus, Acis- the middle pot in one of the shots above, between Galanthus trojanus on the left and Galanthus gracillis, with the twist to the leaves, on the right; he talked about Galanthomania of course and the economics of supply and demand…. ;
…… that snowdrops are pollinated by wild bees, mostly, solitary creatures and that the plants differential growth only triggers the closed petals to open when temperatures reach a certain point – one that matches the temperatures such bees need to be able to fly and forage; also that snowdrops are ‘buzz-pollinated’ – the beating of the bee’s wings, at a certain frequency, signals the stamens to release their pollen. Simply magical!
What I picked up on as the most useful and profound comment was on being asked whether, to increase your stock, it is better to split an existing colony of bulbs or to grow on the bulbils – the baby bulbs – that will cluster around their mother. Tom said, that as in every decision whether it is pruning or dividing – or anything else for that matter horticulturally, you must first have a clear idea of what it is you are wanting to achieve. Why exactly you will do either a, b, or c …. A philosophical and practical point but one I shall be sure to highlight even more in my conversations and future workshops.
Dividing an established colony into two will give you two smaller, yet mature and flowering colonies. Sorting out the flowering bulbs from the bulbils may give you a greater amount of new material but there is a lot of time and effort needed to grow on the immature growth. Splitting individual bulbs is even more time-consuming – and risky – though is often the only way of propagating individual bulbs. For many cultivars, vegetative propagation and division is of course the only way to ensure you continue to get the same plant and not some new hybrid, unless you isolate individual flowers and hand-pollinate them with flowers you know are from the same named example/plant.
And wherever the original species hails from, even across diverse geographical distances, climes and situations, most can accommodate our heavy-handed efforts to grow them in much more standardised conditions, subject to meeting their basic needs – so I think it is time to give them a go!
I shall be reading more now and have provided links to several sources, many from my favourite gardening writers in the Telegraph archives, and elsewhere. If you have an interest, have s scroll down and see what else you can learn about these little treasures and look through my own archive – using the search box or the tags on the left hand side (they are on the left, aren’t they?) for more galleries and show reports.
The RHS Early Spring show this year is on the 13th and 14th February –
Finally, a little glimpse inside the Davies Alpine House ….
LINKS AND OTHER READING (yes, the Telegraph is in here too)
Meet the experts guided tours
Meet Kew’s horticultural and science staff and find out about their work behind the scenes. January’s tours will be all about snowdrops. Every Tuesday at 11.30am.
Event detailsTuesdays at 11.30am, tour lasts about 90 minutesVenue:Meet at the Information desk (by Victoria Plaza café) at 11.15am, max 15 people per tourPrice:
Included with entry price to the Gardens
During the guided tour you’ll meet Kew’s knowledgeable and enthusiastic staff and visit areas of the Gardens not normally seen by the public. You’ll gain an insight into different aspects of work that Kew undertakes in areas of science, horticulture and conservation.
Depending on the featured plant or fungus the tour could include a visit to the Jodrell Laboratory, the Herbarium or one of our Nurseries. You’ll see how Kew’s research can be used to help people across the globe, for example with re-forestation or finding alternative crops for farming in remote areas.
Tours will be mainly outside, but you may be taken to different areas behind the scenes at Kew. All locations are wheelchair accessible.
Snowdrops (Galanthus) belong to a small genus with only 20 species, but have over 500 cultivars making them very important horticulturally.
The ‘common’ snowdrop seen in the British Isles is Galanthus nivalis. It originally comes from southern areas of Europe but can now be found growing wild in many places across Britain. It was most likely introduced to Britain in the early 16th century.
Snowdrops at Kew
Kew holds a large collection of snowdrops with nearly all the known species represented in both the living collections and in dried specimens in the Herbarium. You can also see significant numbers of cultivated Galanthus across the Gardens.
The Rock Garden is home to most of the snowdrop collection, with several also growing in the Davies Alpine House. Horticultural staff propagate snowdrop species in the Alpine Nursery.
The chemistry of snowdrops
The alkaloid galanthamine, used as a treatment for Alzheimer’s disease symptoms, is produced from the snowdrop Galanthus woronowii. This and other alkaloids found in the plant are toxic if consumed. There have been many cases of poisoning when bulbs have been accidentally eaten.
Galanthus is just one example of a plant that produces potentially useful substances for the treatment of neurological diseases and disorders. Many others are now being investigated, with Kew scientist Dr Melanie-Jayne Howes leading this area of research.
Habitat destruction and collecting for the horticultural trade is threatening the survival of many Galanthus species in nature. Galanthus is the most heavily traded wild-collected bulb genus in the world, but trade in wild specimens is now being restricted.
And yet more reading …