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?


Method
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.

Results
  • 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.


Therefore...
  • 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.

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