Guest Post: The Snowdrop ~ Harbinger of Spring

Can there possibly be any signs of Spring with current temperatures what they are?! Even here today in South Carolina we are at 28 degrees [warming up to maybe 53…I live in Hope]! So I happily welcome Pam Braak, NAFCH Treasurer and Tarrant County (TX) Master Gardener, with her thoughts on Chawton House and the Snowdrop:

Chawton House

The Snowdrop ~ Harbinger of Spring

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I wonder if the sap is stirring yet,

If wintry birds are dreaming of a mate,

If frozen snowdrops feel as yet the sun

And crocus fires are kindling one by one:

Sing, robin, sing:

I still am sore in doubt concerning Spring.

–Christina Rossetti (1830-1894), from “The First Spring Day”

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Chawton House recently announced their participation in the National Garden Scheme’s Snowdrop Sunday, with an event on February 6.  The National Garden Scheme in the UK brings joy to this Texas gardener — and envy that I cannot participate without a transatlantic flight.  I wondered about the snowdrop mania in the UK and if there exists an analogous passion for them in the U.S.

We have Garden Conservancy Open Days in the U.S. but that cannot compare to the immense number of gardens that the NGS organizes each year. Privately owned gardens open each year to visitors, with admission fees donated to health-related charities. In 2020 there were over 3,700 gardens due to open. Imagine the choices!  For the Snowdrop Festival in February, 100 gardens are participating, including Chawton House.

George Plumptre, Chief Executive of the National Garden Scheme, says: “Following the restrictions of 2020 and 2021 there has never been a greater need to start the new year with the beautiful freshness of the first blooms of spring. But garden visiting at this time of year is not just for galanthophiles who are looking to discover a rare variety of snowdrop in gardens they may never otherwise find. Snowdrops are the perfect antidote to the winter blues and spending the afternoon at one of our 100 Snowdrop Festival gardens is the ideal opportunity to get outside and enjoy some spectacular scenes at an otherwise gloomy time of year.”

Common Snowdrop Galanthus nivalis

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“Snowdrops: theirs is a fragile but hardy celebration

– in the very teeth of winter”

Louise Beebe Wilde (1878-1938), American gardening writer

Snowdrops enjoy a cult following in the UK where aficionados are known as galanthophiles. No doubt these enthusiasts will be spotted around the Chawton House gardens getting down on their knees and even lying on their bellies to enjoy and photograph these late-winter wonders. Galanthophiles are collectors of much more than common snowdrops. The lure of collecting the 2,500 plus varieties is quite a draw. Galanthophiles look for snowdrops in old gardens, but there are plenty for sale, some at phenomenal prices. Per “Fun facts about Snowdrops – National Garden Scheme” , a single Galanthus plicatus “Golden Fleece” sold for £1,390 on eBay in 2015!  Akin to the tulip craze in seventeenth-century Holland.

There are a plethora of festivals and tours in the UK celebrating the snowdrop. For instance, in Dorset the citizens of Shaftesbury have planted more than 200,000 snowdrop bulbs since 2017 and have an annual festival. Stateside, I did find the Galanthus Gala in Downingtown, PA but I do not think our fondness approaches UK levels. [Here is their facebook page with a virtual event in 2021, nothing yet for 2022 on there.]

Snowdrops are easy to grow, tough, and often push through the snow to bloom. You can find several varieties for sale online in the U.S., but I doubt you’ll locate 2,500 varieties. They are recommended in USDA hardiness zones 3 to 7, growing best in partial sun and partial shade. In the southern zone where I live, the bulbs may decline over time; this is a plant that is most likely best suited to cooler climates. In the meantime, I content myself with growing a relative, summer snowflakes Leucojum aestivum, which bloom in February, contrary to their name.  In my garden, I must be content to just dream of swaths of snowdrops.

Various varieties of Galanthus

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Thank you Pam for bringing us a little joy into our climate-stressed, virus-ridden world – I think even Jane Austen would be smiling! [Does she mention snowdrops anywhere??]

For more information on Chawton House, their current exhibition on Botanical Women, and their other interesting goings-on, please visit ChawtonHouse.org. You can also help with their ongoing efforts for their Library and estate by becoming a Friend – donate whatever you can on the North American Friends of Chawton House donation page – we appreciate your support!

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Jane Austen on 7 March 7 1814, from London to Cassandra in Chawton:

Monday Here’s a day! – The Ground covered with snow!  What is to become of us? – We were to have walked out early to near Shops, & had the Carriage for the more distant. – Mr. Richard Snow* is dreadfuly fond of us.  I dare say he has stretched himself out at Chawton too.

Ltr. 98, 5-8 March 1814, p. 270 [Le Faye, 4th ed.]

The Brighton Mail, Sunday, December 25th 1836 (R. Havell)
[F. Gordon Roe, Sporting Prints of the Eighteenth and Early Nineteenth Centuries.  NY: Payson & Clarke, 1927.]
©2022, Jane Austen in Vermont