What is it about snowdrops that inspires collectors? In many ways they are small, dainty, but fairly insignificant blossoms. Perhaps it has to do with their bravery, emerging as they do in the worst conditions of the year. Perhaps it is because they are unfussy and are willing to spread and colonise large areas, without becoming thuggish. Perhaps it is because of their bright cheerful appearance, nodding gently in the breeze. Perhaps it has to do with their delicate green or yellow markings, indicating minute differences. Perhaps it is because of their delicate honey scent which is attractive to bees.
True collectors are known as galanthophiles. From the Latin Galanthus the name of their genus. Our friend in Cork has a truly wonderful display every February, they are planted under beech trees with crocuses and winter aconites, giving way to daffodils towards the end of their season. He says he does not count as a galanthophile as he has too few different varieties, but the overall effect is stunning. True collectors are willing to spend large sums of money to acquire rare bulbs, a reminder of the tulip mania that existed in the 17th century.
Snowdrops are not native to Ireland, but they have naturalised happily and I love to see large dense carpets of them under trees or shrubs. In our small garden I am aiming to plant them under the shrub hedge in the front bed, and under trees and shrubs wherever I can fit them.
We have few varieties in our garden, our main ones are the common Galanthus nivalis, but we also have varieties elwesii, woronowii, winterhart, Straffan discovered in Straffan House, Co Kildare in the 1870s, and the lovely double flore pleno. These were bulbs purchased at the garden centre, but we have also received presents from friends, and these are unnamed, except by mention of the place where they originated or the person who originally bestowed them.
One of the loveliest displays is at Burtown House, near Athy, Co Kildare (burtownhouse.ie), once the home of the botanical artist Wendy Walsh, who has made drawings of the snowdrop. Another splendid visit is to Altamont Gardens in Co Carlow (carlowtourism.com/altamont-gardens), now in state ownership and maintained by the Office of Public Works.