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.