Wednesday, 1 October 2014

Dear Galanthophil....

A letter to my snowdrop-loving friends, after E. A. Bowles;

My Dear Galanthophil*,

I am writing to you in some excitement: my book, The Plant Lover’s Guide to Snowdrops is finally released in the UK.

By now you may even have a copy, in which case I hope you are enjoying it. There are, as you know, different sorts of books on Galanthus: The terribly serious academic ones, the terribly gorgeous arty ones, and mine. So what’s it all about? Well may you ask.
Cover image is G. nivalis 'Blonde Inge'

As a lover of snowdrops since childhood, I was thrilled to be approached by Timber Press to contribute to their new Plant Lover’s Guides series. But this is a plant we all know so well; what could be new and different, what could I do that was reasonably comprehensive but also engaging and fun? My first point of reference was the idea of ‘love’.

People love for many reasons. The object may be beautiful or it may bestow hope and strength. There may be happy associations with times past or times present. There may be the lust of ownership and desire of acquisition or it may simply be an interest in a subject of endless diversity. I have a hunch that in different people snowdrops encapsulate all of these, so I set out to find every nugget of snowdroppy interest and joy I could get my hands on.

Actually, that bit was pretty easy; the literature and contemporary Galanthus landscape is littered with cool chaps who romped up mountains for species and sat in sheds hybridising in search of the perfect bloom. There are lots of interesting stories attached to specific cultivars too, while considering how they can be used in the garden was another marvellous rabbit hole to dive down. While meeting the specialists and writing about them is one of the enduring pleasures of my day job.

To be honest my friend, I am amazed that I am not still lost in some snowdrop wonderland.

Welford Park, Berkshire. A snowdrop wonderland
The whole exercise was a truly enjoyable opportunity to write and research in depth. I learned a lot. While it is not an exhaustive catalogue of all the snowdrops in the cultivated world it does pick off some good ones. But then it is not intended to be exhaustive. More, it is a merry romp through delightful forms and those flowers that are distinctive and rewarding to grow. The aim was to inspire and engage, not to challenge. It is an exercise in pleasure rather than precision. Consider it, my dear Galanthophil, a gateway drug. A starting point. A lavishly illustrated slippery slope.

So what delighted me most? I think the voyage of discovery appealed. The chance to become a snowdropista. My restlessness likes an evolving landscape and a little bit of debate.

I admit a little conflict, I could have been more precise and academic but that would have made it a less easy read. That is the thing about writing; a good part of the skill is knowing what to leave out. Knowing where the exquisite final detail actually detracts from the performance and the pace. Spotting the differences in energy that are required in creating a live theatre performance as opposed to establishing a reference library.

Emerging snowdrop shoots
I will give you an example. On page 178 I propose an experiment to test whether snowdrop shoots produce heat to melt snow or whether it is the thermal effect of the dark tips absorbing the sun’s heat. As a control I suggested repeating the experiment in the dark. Ever since, the scientist in me has been losing sleep. What if the activity of photosynthesis and respiration also has a thermal effect? That might skew the results. So one should probably repeat the experiment and control with both live and dead snowdrops**..... What was that? Oh yes. The sound of the door closing as those who are more interested in conservation, folklore or garden design*** lose interest and wander off.

You see, Dear Galanthophil (and I trust that you do not object to the epithet. On historic and botanical grounds, if it is good enough for E A Bowles, it is good enough for me) it is easy to get distracted and let the ideas and research run away with one, but that does not a better book necessarily make.

So there we have it. I hope that when you finally receive your copy of The Plant Lover’s Guide to Snowdrops that you enjoy it and that it brings you pleasure. I look forward to your thoughts.

I trust this letter finds you well and that our paths will cross again soon.

With kindest regards,


Notes for the interested

*The term Galanthophile arose from a letter from horticultural legend Edward Augustus Bowles to a friend, whom he addressed as ‘Dear Galanthophil’

**I rang the RHS and Kew to check out the veracity of this belief but the responses were inconclusive. To be truly rigorous one could take the experiment a whole lot further, but I would not want to bore you.^

***There is a whole lot of this stuff too, and tips on growing snowdrops, and diseases, and medical uses...I squidged in a lot of things, all told.

^..... although I may engage myself with further experimentation one of these days, just out of interest.

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Scissors Paper Stone

My local municipal flowerbed, back when it used to be fun.
I have a bit of a bee in my bonnet about municipal planting and garden design in public spaces. It is an opportunity to bring style, excitement or just a bit of beauty to the masses; and one that is usually left to languish in unkempt evergreen scrub.

This is somewhere that a little planning and creativity could reap dividends, but the norm is either uninspired, high maintenance and wasteful, or both.

Just up the road from me is a long curved flowerbed in a small public garden adjacent to a roundabout. It used to be fun, it really did. When I first met it, someone had put in some thought and the late summer display looked so good in a soft morning mist that I went home and came back with a camera.
This is the same flower bed as below, five years earlier.

It wasn’t a challenging or intellectual display, the plants are all quite ordinary but it had a cheerful flair and pizzazz. And then they dug the whole lot up a fortnight later to put in spring bulbs.*

Since then I have observed that that an astonishing amount of money seems to be spent on rather nasty selections of annual bedding. I take emphatic issue with the traditional handful-of-jelly tots-chucked-onto-a-blanket school of urban planting. Sure, young plants will expand to fill gaps but pansies with 18 inch spacings will never impressive groundcover make.  

In the case of this particular patch, it has also boasted some of the nastiest pastel colour schemes imaginable. The palette looks like it has been lifted from The Catalogue of Stylish Underwear for the Older Woman**, circa 1988.

See what I mean? 
Skinny, pastel planting. Must try harder.

In its favour: the cherry trees are nice. Which is the germ of a solution. A backbone of thoughtful permanent planting that can be topped up with transient colour, annuals or bulbs. ‘But perennials and shrubs are expensive’ I hear you sob. Well, yes, but you don’t have to change them so often. Consider it in the same light as buying good pair of shoes and polishing them every now and again as compared  to buying three or four pairs of shoes that last a few months then disintegrate. Unless you are talking this-season’s cheap and transient fashion item (which we are not), it is not worth it. In the long run it will save money and effort.

This planting scheme is about three months old
But the key word here is ‘thoughtful’. This recent permanent border in front of a new building looks like the pots were unloaded from the truck and planted where they landed. You can see what they are trying to do - create a sequence of flowering and foliage interest with a decent evergreen backbone, but the layout is properly pants.***

It is a bit like playing scissors-paper-stone with plants. Phormiums are sandwiched between bamboo and mahonia, underplanted with bergenias. Pittosporum is wedged up against Photinia ‘Red Robin’ and spirea; underplanted with geraniums. Then there are some sizeable patches of bare earth - but not between the plants that are going to get really big.

This is a fight waiting to happen. An actual turf war.

Photinia trumps Pittosporum and probably spirea; they will all likely outcompete the bergenias (yes, I know they are tolerant, but the soil here gets dry). Mahonia will rapidly encroach on the phormiums and anyway the shapes are a bit odd together. The Pittosporum is already vanishing under the phormium which are doing rather well given they have only been there for six months. But in many ways it is academic since, in a space that size, bamboo in that quantity will sort out the lot given a few years. ****

Again, in its favour, the trees are nice. And I have hope for the geraniums. They are survivors.
A slightly strange selection of plants

So what do we learn from all this?

Well, firstly that when schemes are planted up there is tragically little thought given to the ultimate size of the plants and their relative size compared to one another. This is pretty much garden design 101. Horticulturists and designers, come back, all is forgiven.

Secondly, that various varieties of prunus and maple are rolled out to save dire planting choices on an alarmingly regular basis. There are, totally, like, other trees out there, people.
But what is rather sad is that, as a result, people get sniffy about shrubs that are solid and decent but badly planted and badly cared for. “Dreadfully municipal”, “Dear me no, the garden will look like a roundabout!” huffs middle England. But it is not the fault of the species in question. Those that are condemned to this pitiful existence. Abandoned to long-term neglect or a tragically short life, drably combined, or spread too thinly to shine.

All in all, it gives good plants a bad name.

Pretty. Like a furry caterpillar.

*I benefitted from half a dozen large Verbenas though, so not all bad.

**I made this up, obviously. And I’m being *really* moderate in my disapprobation.

***In contrast I offer you the verge of the A406 near Bounds Green. Ordinary, low maintenance evergreen things like Lonicera nitida and Ceanothus are planted in a geometric pattern. It has been there for at least 15 years to my certain knowledge and could now badly use some TLC but its longevity and impact are undeniable.

****As far as I know there are no spring bulbs in all this. But the killer combination of daffodils and bamboo is rare for a reason.

Tuesday, 28 January 2014

The Great Snowdrop Experiment*

It may or may not be common knowledge that I have a book out this year. It is on snowdrops**, for which I have a lifelong love and appreciation. This is clearly not the same thing as having a humungeous collection of rarities. If you want such a thing, go and talk to my friend Joe Sharman. Where that is concerned, he's the boy.   
As it happens, I have, numerically, lots of snowdrops - they are parked in a corner and there are more each year. They are mostly variations of common nivalis, including a few that I have selected ‘to watch’ but they are not what you would call posh. The fancy snowdrop collection is increasing cheerfully and enthusiastically but, until recently, has been kept intentionally fairly modest and realistically more hardy than fancy, depending on how high your standards are ***.

Anyway, while writing, two things came up time and again – firstly that one should always buy snowdrops from a reputable source so you know what they are and that they are healthy, and secondly that species Galanthus elwesii is a wildly variable creature. I also discovered that snowdrops are the most widely collected bulb in the world (collection limited to G. elwesii and G. woronowii for conservation reasons) and that identification of the bulbs that are sold, whether wild collected or grown for the purpose, is frankly pretty shaky.
One of my snowdrops. G nivalis.

And what do I do when the received wisdom is not to do something? Well, go and do it, obviously.

Now I hasten to add, this is not about getting hold of lots of snowdrops quickly and cheaply.  This is science****. The questions I posed were:

1.      When they say that G. elwesii is variable, how variable do they mean? Like, when you buy some, what do you get?
2.       If identification is shaky, then you may frequently not get what you are supposed to be getting. How often does this happen and what does show up?
3.       If you buy snowdrop bulbs, rather than plant in the green, do they actually grow?

So. I went and bought some packets of snowdrop bulbs*****. One was a ‘collector’s snowdrop’ purporting to be G. ikariae from a well known garden centre. I then went to a high street source****** (the sort I’ve roundly slated for selling rubbish plants in blogs passim) and bought a packet of G. elwesii, returning three weeks later to buy another. I planted some in pots, some in the ground and labelled them all well.
Some of the flowers arrive before others

So what happened?

This is where is got interesting.

  • Firstly, all the bulbs came up.
  • The “ikariae” came up as something that did not look quite right – wrong green markings on inner segments, wrong shaped leaves. Probably a gracilis. Which means that I have put it in the wrong place.
  • The first batch of “elwesii” came up looking pretty elwesii-ish (with the odd exception that I will be keeping an eye on) and highly variable both in flowering time and the shape and colour of the green inner markings.
  • The second batch of “elwesii” came up as something completely different. Wide, curved, grass-green leaves so far (no flowers yet) and looking a bit like Galanthus woronowii or possibly G ikariae (in which case it is in the wrong place again). Or even, as E. A. Bowles would say, a scilla. When and if  I get a flower I'll let you know. [Update, 11 March 2014: No flowers at all on these bulbs, which means that not only were they not what they said they were, they were also too small to flower. And the people who market this stuff are very naughty.]

This one does not look like...
This one.
Which in turn is different to....

In conclusion
  • Well done to those chaps who are doing their best to ensure that the bulbs are treated well enough to actually grow.
  • The specialist bulbs sold in garden centres may well not be what it says on the tin. And said garden centres should know better.
  • Species Galanthus elwesii really is a lot of fun.
  • Mystery plant
  • The cheap species bulbs sold on the high street are also highly likely to be mislabelled. (My results indicate >50% of the time, but the sample size is too small for this to be even vaguely reliable.) In the case of the shop where I bought the “G. elwesii”, G. woronowii was not even an option.

  • If you do go to a non-specialist retailer and buy a packet of bulbs you can get some exciting results, even if it was not what you were aiming for.
  • If you want to be quite sure of what you are getting, go to a reputable bulb supplier or small specialist. (Yes, I know, I’m getting a sense of déjà vu as well...).
  • And finally, snowdrops are really quite as cool and addictive as one could ever hope and anticipate. I’m doomed.
This one.

Yup, and the markings are different here too. Variable, see.

*well, not so great really. Quite modest in fact and the sample size was a bit small, but I liked the title.

** my apologies to the galanthophobes, but when you are a freelance writer and the phone rings and a voice goes ‘Hello. You like snowdrops, would you like to write a book on them?’ the obvious answer is ‘Hell, yes! When would you like it?’

***Why? Because I have I large and expensive collection of small relatives and asking perpetrators of mayhem to take care of plants on the scale of ‘don’t pull branches off that apple tree’ is comprehensible. But armed with spades and diggers and asking them to avoid a large and expensive collection of small bulbs that are invisible for most of the year, and expecting them to comply and/or avoid accident, is just fantasy. Live with it.

****Got a degree in Biology, innit. You can take the girl out of the science lab, but you can’t take the science lab out of the girl.

*****making sure the bulbs were plump, firm and otherwise not manky.

******Like I said. It is science, not utopia.