The Bannerman way
Julian and Isabel Bannerman have devised some brilliant ways of planting snowdrops in their garden at Hanham Court, near Bristol. They have them beneath a 200-year-old, curvy armed walnut tree mixed in sweeps with aconites and the first of the primroses; they have carpets of simple Galanthus nivalis and G. elwesii merging with clumps of celandine and narcissus in their woodland garden.
They have snowdrops planted in the best winter container I’ve seen for years, the huge teardrop snowdrop, 'S. Arnott’ standing high above a dense magenta carpet of Cyclamen coum. The two flower at exactly the same time, the colour contrast between them intense, like sweets in a jar, for a good six weeks at this grim time of year. But around the corner they have something even better.
This winter, they’ve created a plant theatre to parade their large and wonderful collection of snowdrops. Plant theatres are more associated with auriculas (they’ll use theirs for that too - Isabel has a great collection), but they want to make displays right through the year and it’s an inspiring and delightful thing.
They’ll have snowdrops right through March, auriculas for April and May, then on to wild flowers, picked from their meadows for June and July, with cut roses and dahlias taking them through until winter.
A plant theatre is a way of having fun with the garden and enjoying the flowers in a different way, with some plants cut, some in pots, and all treated as museum pieces. Julian fell for the idea when, as a child, he visited a small plant theatre in the museum in the Cathedral Close at Wells, Somerset. It was filled every day by an elderly lady, who had layer upon layer of simple glass bottles, each filled with a little bunch or single stem of a wild flower picked from the fields that morning. He remembers the beauty, the simplicity, with bright, clean water, a vision of perfection.
Each clump of snowdrops, in their varying sizes of terracotta pot with Isabel’s perfectly inked labels, has the same delicacy and embroidered care. It’s just a way of making you see how beautiful each one of these things is.
Best Snowdrop Varieties
This long, slow winter has delayed and lengthened the snowdrop season, which is great for snowdrop lovers and may encourage others to look again at this unassuming yet fabulously pretty flower.
You can divide snowdrops into two groups – those good for the garden that do well for anybody, are quite quick to bulk up, easy to divide and then replant to naturalise (planted at least 3in deep). Then there are those that are a little more rarefied, slower to bulk up and hence more expensive.
For the garden
Galanthus nivalis The straight-up, wild (or naturalised) snowdrop, with silvery green leaves and neat, slim flowers.
Quick to establish if lifted and divided in the green (when it is in active growth and even flowering) on almost any soil, in sun or partial shade. Usually flowers from early February, but a little late this year.
G. nivalis 'Flore Pleno': The double form of our naturalised snowdrop, with cancan skirts of white and green filling out the centre of the flower.
Another one easy to establish, and divide to replant and create massive carpets. Earlier to flower than straight G. nivalis.
G. elwesii A native to the former Yugoslavia, Greece and Turkey, this is similar in appearance to G. nivalis, but earlier to flower in January. It bulbs up quickly and easily and so is ideal to create far-reaching carpets.
'S. Arnott' is one of the largest and most impressive, just about affordable in number, with beautiful pure white, light bulb flowers. They open up to sycamore seed heads in the sun and smell deliciously of honey. The bees adore it.
This is the one they have as one-year-old, single bulbs planted above a carpet of cyclamen in a large stone sink beside the front door.
'Atkinsii' is another quick clump-former, with finer, more needle-like petals than 'S. Arnott', but still lush and lovely. It's easy to grow, brings light under a tree, bulbs up easily, ideal standing with 'S. Arnott', towering above the rest in the February garden party.
'Straffan' is an excellent, large, late-flowering form, with a distinct green mark on the inner petal that looks like a Chinese bridge.
It often has a second, even later flower stem that starts to bloom towards the end of February. It's useful if you want a display from Christmas until Easter.
For a reliable succession, the first really good snowdrop to flower is G. retinae-olgae subsp. vernalis, with big grey leaves and medium-size flowers that can be in flower for Christmas. Start with that and end with 'Straffan', with any of these others in between.
'Hippolyta' is one step up from the wild double 'Flore Pleno' with taller stems, wider flowers and bigger central petticoats. This is also very early, so ideal if you want a succession in the garden for three or four months at a stretch.
'Lavinia' is another double, with very long stems, so you can see right up into the centre of the flower without having to scrabble around on your hands and knees. Nice green tips to the petals too.
For pots and plant theatre
These tend to be slower to bulk up and so are much in demand and hence expensive.
'Grumpy' Has a grumpy-looking face marked on the inner petals – small, delicate and funny.
'Walrus' Another eccentric with thin outer petals, which make it look like a walrus with tusks and whiskers.
'Bill Bishop' The first of what Julian calls "the fairy light bulbs" with white pearly petals that open out almost flat. Huge and delicious.
'John Gray' is a huge and handsome light bulb type, which flowers earlier than 'Bill Bishop'. A must for the collector because of its scale.
'Gerard Parker' Lovely, slightly puckered outer petals that give it a beautiful glossy sheen.
'Blewbury Tart' A fabulous double with upward-looking flowers where the grey-green central ballerina's tutu dominates the white outer petals. Unusual and lovely for it, and fantastic when picked.