Robert Millar, a 37-year-old plant geek, snowdrop lover and nurseryman in Carlow, refuses to let Ireland’s slow economic recovery dampen his spirits. Earlier this month, he held a festival — a “gala” — that drew more than 100 other snowdrop fanciers from across the country to revel in a craze known as galanthomania, after the plant’s botanic name, Galanthus.
For the galanthophiles, as they are known, a recent tour of one of Ireland’s best collections of snowdrops at an estate called Altamont Gardens was followed by the far more serious business of buying novel varieties of this improbably coveted flower. Millar’s offerings ranged from $7 to $20 a plant, modest in the snowdrop world. “Of course, people are much more careful about what to buy,” Millar said, “so you have to do your best to present them with something they can’t resist.”
Millar considers himself lucky: His lack of dependents or a big mortgage turned out to be a parachute when Ireland went over the cliff. “If I had them, I couldn’t afford to stay in business.”
In a nearby makeshift greenhouse, visiting English nurseryman Alan Street found himself facing a crowd buzzing around a table stacked with snowdrop varieties selling for as much as $70 a pot.
The gala is repeated throughout much of Western Europe in the weeks before the daffodils of March, with organized lectures, garden tours and plant sales. The craze is particularly strong in Britain, the Low Countries and Germany. Historically, the passion was kindled by a few English gardeners dating back to the 19th century, though a handful of landed Irish gardeners nurtured the bulb and raised celebrated varieties such as Straffan, Drummond’s Giant and Cicely Hall.
How or when, exactly, the snowdrop attained so much significance is open to debate. Indisputably, the little white flower is the antidote for cabin fever; it gives gardeners another excuse to get together and talk plants; and it appeals to the human urge to collect.
“You get a present of a snowdrop, you buy a few, and in the end you get hooked on it,” said Guy De Schrijver, a gray-bearded Belgian snowdrop fancier who has lived in Ireland for 32 years. We found him taking a rest in Millar’s nursery, but he sells snowdrops from his small nursery in Tipperary.
The winters are long but relatively mild in Ireland, so enterprising gardeners can assemble impressive winter landscapes in which the snowdrop is joined by such beauties as witch hazels, cyclamen, Lenten roses and the carpets of buttercups known as winter aconites.
But it all centers on this demure, delicate white flower, a plant whose promise of spring inspired the likes of composer Robert Schumann.