Melting Over Snowdrops

At Winterthur in Delaware, drifts of snowdrops have naturalized in an old woodland of giant tulip poplars.
At Winterthur in Delaware, drifts of snowdrops have naturalized in an old woodland of giant tulip poplars. (By Jeannette Lindvig For Winterthur Museum & Country Estate)
By Adrian Higgins
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, March 22, 2007

It is snowing sideways, the wind has turned my hands red raw, and I am squinting at a hillside that is fast turning white with sleet. Anyone for snowdropping?

This is a new word to describe the social phenomenon of visiting private and public gardens that have large displays of snowdrops. The nodding white bulb, which used to flower bravely in the cold with little or no adulation, has hit it big. Okay, that is mostly the case in England, but there are signs that the lowly snowdrop is about to have its day in the sun here, too.

One indication is that British botanist and snowdrop expert John Grimshaw could be found in the midst of last Friday's sleet and snowfall leading a small group of horticulturists through the March Bank at the Winterthur Museum & Country Estate outside Wilmington, Del. This slice of old tulip poplar forest next to the mansion-turned-museum of Henry Francis du Pont has itself been brought back from the brink to become one of most fabulous "wild gardens" on the East Coast. Beneath the colossal old trees, du Pont planted impressive blankets of delicate spring bulbs, from daffodils to anemones. The March Bank, ironically, draws most people in early April for its "blue phase," when the glades are full of scilla and glory-of-the-snow.

But Winterthur's garden director, Chris Strand, hopes that the snowdrop mania across the pond will catch on here and induce visitors to brave the unpredictable March weather for their own stab at snowdropping. Snowdrops are typically showy until the end of March, said Strand.

Judging by Grimshaw's glowing assessment of du Pont's effort, a visit over the next few days would be worth it. The snowdrops, now poking through a blanket of ground-hugging winter aconites, cover perhaps an acre or more, the product of du Pont's bulb plantings a century ago. Modern varieties of snowdrop tend to clump, and with age produce dozens of flowers in a bulbous mass the size of a dinner plate, but du Pont's self-sown wildlings have spread in a more uniform and delicate fashion in a faithful representation of wild populations from Spain to Turkey. "This is a very good example of a wild garden," said Grimshaw, who is manager of a snowdrop mecca in England called Colesbourne Park.

The hillside of the March Bank is dominated by drifts of the common snowdrop and the larger species known as the giant snowdrop. Snowdroppers are known as galanthophiles, after the Latin name for snowdrop, Galanthus. Du Pont's drifts, which remain as a testament to his artistry almost four decades after his death, form a genetically rich colony, alive with the type of natural mutations that botanists and breeders go mad for. Grimshaw, in a blinding snowstorm, could peer into thousands of snowdrops and pick out minute variations in tiny plants many feet away. One had four outer petals instead of three, another had a yellow swelling at the base of the bloom, another was unusually large. This is like staring into a crowd at a baseball stadium and picking out people with green eyes or upturned noses, but for galanthophiles a lot more fun, in spite of the snow.

It is the development of novel varieties that has helped to give snowdropping its current cachet. A single bulb sold at auction last year in England for the equivalent of about $200, and the two priciest bulbs in Grimshaw's catalogue are about $70 each. One is a variety of the giant snowdrop named Rosemary Burnham, with green petals (technically perianth segments); the other is Wasp, a hybrid whose markings and thin petals suggest the insect.

There are 19 species, a handful of natural hybrids, and now 700 varieties. Planting a woodland with $70 bulbs would bankrupt even a du Pont; Grimshaw said the expensive varieties are reserved for cherished display in garden beds or rock gardens. The wild-garden effect relies on plain old species, readily available from Dutch bulb catalogues in the fall, about $10 for 25. "Cheap and cheerful," Grimshaw said.

The choice varieties raised in Britain are virtually unavailable to U.S. gardeners. International trade in snowdrops was severely curtailed more than 10 years ago because bulbs sold through catalogues were being wild-collected as a cottage industry in Turkey. Now Turkey has a strict export quota, and the Dutch bulb catalogue snowdrops are propagated in Holland from existing stock. The restrictions, however, require specialty growers such as Grimshaw to obtain licenses to sell bulbs in the United States, even for the choicest varieties that don't exist in the wilds of Asia Minor.

All is not lost, however. Hitch Lyman, a snowdrop grower in Trumansburg, N.Y., is the steward of large collections of snowdrop varieties developed in Britain and grown by enthusiasts in the United States between 1890 and 1970, "which is a good, long period and full of interest," he said.

Lyman is taken by the fact that when he goes snowdropping in England in February, he sees tour buses from Sweden, Germany, Holland and Belgium full of galanthophiles, "like they're going to wine country to taste local vintages."

Colesbourne Park had 1,200 visitors on one afternoon in February, Grimshaw said. "It is now being called galanthomania, as in tulipomania" of the 17th century, he said.

To the uninitiated, and that includes me, the ornamental differences among varieties is not that evident -- not like, say, among daffodils, where there is a wide range of exquisite colors and forms. But when you see Grimshaw brush aside an outer petal to reveal the fishlike markings, in green, on the inner petals, you begin to see that the world of snowdrops can become spellbinding.

"To appreciate snowdrops you have to get down there, you have to train your mind, it becomes a contemplative exercise," he said. "I suppose I'm a snowdrop expert. It makes you sound a little bit on the lunatic fringe."

For a catalogue from Hitch Lyman, mail a check for $3 to the Temple Nursery, P.O. Box 591, Trumansburg, N.Y. 14886. His prices range from $2 to $50 per bulb, and he digs and ships in early April. No Internet or telephone sales.

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