In search of a mutant snowdrop

Charles Quest-Ritson tells the story of a snowdrop that turns out to be a painfully elusive winter delight.

The book of Ecclesiastes reminds us that there is a time for everything—a time to be born and a time to die. Gardeners know there is a time to sow and a time to reap.

January is the time to be gloomy. The days may be getting longer, but the frosts are getting stronger. Snow disfigures everything it touches. Sixty years ago we had 14-foot snowdrifts along our mile in Northumberland, and when I returned to school after the Easter holidays there were piles of snow still unmelted in Winchester. Don’t be fooled by climate change – bad winters are definitely not a thing of the past. Another might be lurking around the corner.

But they are learning. I made a big mistake 40 years ago when I found an extraordinary group of snowdrops in a rook-infested forest in Wiltshire. The flowers were divided in the middle so that each of the two pedicels had 2½ petals. He may have been a schizoid, but he also had a special delicacy. The farmer said I could dig it up, which I did. Then I took him home and planted him. Soft, refreshing rain watered him well. A week later we had a severe frost, and then snow. By the time it has melted and the pot has thawed, the snowdrops have turned into a slimy porridge. None of the bulbs survived. I learned that plants are much hardier in the ground than in pots.

The snow protects the plants lying underneath in the alpine meadows. This also keeps them dry, so when the great thaw begins and the snow turns to water, they have several months of accumulated rainfall to start growing. The equation doesn’t work in our climate because rain, not snow, hits our flower borders from November to March. Except for the big frosts of 1963, of course.

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I don’t remember much about the summer that followed in 1963. I know the roses didn’t bloom until July and the RHS did a survey of its members. They reported that cistus and ceanothus were common victims, but many more plants survived than they expected. This was our experience too: magnolia grandiflora And Choysya Ternata which my grandmother had planted against the wall of the manger for protection from the winter were badly scorched, but both managed to bloom that year a little later than usual. By 1964, all gardens were back to normal.

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I remembered the snowdrops I so successfully destroyed 40 years ago when I met Lord Heseltine, Deputy Head Gardener, in the fall of 2021. fellow snowdrop lovers. “This is Charles Quest-Ritson,” they said. “Quite unusual, in fact, downright schizoid.” Emma told me that shapes and variations could appear over and over again in a population of snowdrops, so I decided to go back to Wiltshire to see if it happened again.

The forest was still there, as were the rooks. Nothing much has changed, although the estate is now owned by the farmer’s grandson, who was as understanding of eccentric gardeners as his grandfather. I diligently searched for steep slopes, but in vain. There was no sign of my long lost foundling with two stalks and curious split flowers. I searched the surface for signs of something else, but to no avail. Each of these snowdrops had standard swamp flowers.

However, I noticed that some of the bushes had not yet opened and asked if I could come back in a couple of weeks when the lagging bushes were in bloom. Perhaps the mutant snowdrop I was looking for will be among them. I even suggested naming him after the farmer’s wife, which was a rather desperate act, because I really hoped that he would be called “Charles Quest-Ritson” and bring me fame and notoriety among knowledgeable galantophiles. True snowdrop lovers now recognize over 2,000 named varieties, most of which, I confess, are completely indistinguishable from each other, at least to my unsophisticated eye.

The farmer was delighted. So, I returned at the beginning of March, after warming. I started on the steeper slopes, where the pale winter sun barely penetrated. The last snowdrops were in bloom, and I slowly and methodically made my way through them, confident that my split snowdrop would show itself again. It didn’t happen, so I went back to the corner where I originally found it 40 years ago. It was there that I had the best chance of finding him again. Back and forth, up and down, into and out of the brambles I hunted while the rooks croaked in mockery.

I never found it. And perhaps I never will. I’ll try again, but it’s probably lost forever. After all, there is a time for hope and a time for… what? My grandmother observed that gardening is a triumph of hope over experience.

Martin Fone delves into the British collective passion for Galanthus and looks at the folklore that surrounds him.

Joe Sharman started growing snowdrops before anyone else and after 10 years of painstaking work created the most expensive

“The job of a galantophile is never ending,” says Michael Heseltine as he tells us about his family’s flower craze; collect snowdrops.

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