Letter from Ireland: Snowdrops are a prize in full bloom

Video: Tourists flock to Altamont Gardens in Ireland to see the snowdrop, a white flower that blooms in winter.

The shamrock is the familiar emblem of Ireland, but these days the snowdrop might be a better one.

In full bloom by early February, the white flower offers a defiantly cheerful face in the bleak winter landscape. For a people still waking with anger, pain and regret from a ride on the Celtic Tiger, the snowdrop offers a lesson in humility, hardiness and hope.

(John Grimshaw/JOHN GRIMSHAW) - Galanthus Comet.

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Quandaries of a mild winter

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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.

If you are tall like Millar or creaky like a lot of the older galanthophiles, merely observing the flower means bowing or kneeling in an act of veneration. Three outer petals hang like rabbit ears around inner petals. The bloom huddles in the cold, but on warmer days the big petals move outward to show the prized green blotches and markings of the “inners.” On a variety named Robin Hood, they form an X; on Fly Fishing, the pattern is a perfect, inverted heart. On another variety, the markings resemble Edvard Munch’s “The Scream”. It’s called Grumpy.

Street’s priciest variety was named Sprite, coveted for its rare streaks of green on the outer petals. EBay has created a seller’s market. Last year, a variety named Green Tear sold for the equivalent of $570. A month later, the Scottish variety Elizabeth Harrison sold for $1,100. It is among a number of rare yellow-marked varieties.

A few years ago, a whole clump of another yellow snowdrop named Carolyn Elwes was stolen from a snowdrop mecca in England, Colesbourne Park. The plant was so well known that it never turned up for sale. John Grimshaw, an English botanist at the forefront of the snowdrop craze, said the thief had picked the horticultural equivalent of a Monet. Too hot to handle.

When Grimshaw co-wrote a landmark book in 2001, there were about 500 named varieties. Now there are more than 1,500, many of them barely distinguishable from the next.

Millar advises his customers, “Don’t buy it if you can’t see the difference.” This may be like telling tourists in Vegas not to gamble.

A subset of gardeners in the United States also fancies the bulb, and will flock to an event at Winterthur near Wilmington, Del., next month. But far fewer varieties are available in the States, in part because the bulb falls under endangered-species protections, and importers face a mountain of red tape.

Grimshaw, speaking to the Irish galanthophiles, said that a collection of 20 varieties should satisfy most folks and that “we should never overlook the sheer beauty” of the common snowdrop species.

In long-undisturbed sites, like their native woodlands in central and southern Europe or the country estates of Britain, the snowdrops have spread slowly to form white carpets with powerful connections to the past. Many were brought back to the British Isles from soldiers in the Crimean War in the 1850s.

In Ireland, the snowdrops have found their way into churchyards, and like the leaning tombstones and hulking yew trees, they provide a haunting continuity. In the village of Shinrone, County Offaly, the church graveyard is awash in February with thousands of naturalized snowdrops. Buried here, in unmarked graves, are a few Kearneys — ancestors of President Obama on his mother’s side. A memorial stone marks the fact.

Viewing snowdrops is in itself a pilgrimage. Once close to the ground, gardeners must deftly pinch the flower to see its veiled patterns. Even when the drizzle stops, the breezy cold gets into your marrow. The Romans named this island Hibernia — a word rooted in winter — and left the land alone.

Some galanthophiles wear heavy coats shielding hot water bottles. Others find warmth in a hip flask.

All this calls to mind another bulb craze, the tulipomania of 17th-century Holland, when a desire for tulips evolved into a ruinous trade in bulb shares and futures. But galanthomania is fundamentally different, said Grimshaw. “There’s no speculation; they’re getting real bulbs.”

Tulipomania, though, is closer to the economic crisis that has turned the Celtic Tiger into one sick pussycat. An economic boom that started soundly in the 1990s became increasingly reliant on a real estate bubble pumped up by a development frenzy, easy money, a ­public-works bonanza and risky banking practices. When the bubble popped, legions of Irish families were stuck in devalued homes with big mortgages and credit card bills. At first, the government agreed to cover the banks’ debt, but the guarantees were unsustainable. With the country facing insolvency, the European Union and the International Monetary Fund ponied up a $90 billion bailout in 2010 in return for painful austerity measures. Unemployment remains at almost 15 percent and emigration is again the norm, but Ireland is paying off its debts and is slowly getting on its feet, though the scars will remain for years. There is a lot of blame to go around.

Millar is old enough to remember the poor times that have visited Irish life for decades. His younger countrymen knew only prosperity, he said. “That was the spoilt generation that grew up having it so easy.” When the banks sent them unsolicited offers of 100 percent mortgages and new-car loans, they jumped at the debt. “The next thing, the whole bubble bursts.”

The crowd ogling and buying snowdrops at Altamont Gardens was of an older generation that is financially more settled but has found wealth in simpler pleasures. Certain bulbs may be expensive, but no one is getting either rich or bankrupt off them.

“It may mean my husband can’t have as expensive a brand of whiskey,” said a woman from Cork who had purchased several hundred euros’ worth of snowdrops and another trendy winter plant, the hellebore.

“The older generation have a better view of how it was and perhaps adapt to it better,” said De Schrijver. “I’m selling snowdrops on my Web site, and I have more customers than last year.”

Most of the choice varieties of snowdrops are natural seedling variants rather than products of concerted human hybridizing, but stay tuned. “I can think of two or three people breeding snowdrops now, and the results will be astonishing,” Grimshaw told the gathering. “We’ll be seeing some extraordinary things in colors and forms.”

Whatever the mood of the broader population, for Irish galanthophiles, spring is in the air.

 
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