The director of the Yorkshire Arboretum is the headline speaker at next month’s Shaftesbury Snowdrops Study Day at the Arts Centre. Dr John Grimshaw has featured the flowers in several of his gardening books. He spoke with Alfred.
“I’ve been interested in snowdrops all my life, since I was a schoolboy and looking at variations I could see wandering about the lanes in Surrey,” said John. “I started collecting them, in a small way with pocket money, when I was still at school. There’s been a very long-standing interest and that continued while I was at Oxford. I got to know a few of the eminent galanthophiles of the day – Primrose Warburg and Richard Nutt. I got to know them quite well. That put me on the road to becoming a galanthophile and fuelled my interest in plants generally.”
Snowdrops are pretty but so are many other flowers. I asked John what qualities snowdrops had that made them more engaging. “They are primarily, as you say, a beautiful thing and it’s just wonderful to see them coming up early, when it changes over from winter to spring,” said John. “Then you begin to delve in and find out about all the differences and the variations you can get. It becomes rather more serious but my primary pleasure in snowdrops is just seeing a great white mass of them in a woodland or churchyard.”
People will spend a lot of money on snowdrop bulbs and travel from all over the UK to events like the Shaftesbury Snowdrop Study Day. John explains why snowdrop fans, known as galanthophiles, become so immersed in their hobby.
“Some of the other plant enthusiasms are less publicly visible, perhaps. A lot of people are keen on orchids and cacti and they are prepared to pay large sums for individual plants. But perhaps it hasn’t quite triggered the imagination of the ordinary gardeners in quite the same way as snowdrops have. It’s a curious passion. From being an interested observer, one suddenly turns into an obsessive collector. Sometimes people are prepared, when they’re collectors, to pay large sums of money for something they want. In that sense, it’s just like buying pictures. You push the boat out a bit now and then pay more than perhaps you should,” he said.
I asked John how much he has spent on a snowdrop bulb. “Never more than £40. I’m not a big spender,” he smiled. It’s quite a lot for one single bulb, I remarked. “It is and I certainly want to make sure I’m getting something good and worthwhile. It’s going to make a difference in the garden.”
I asked John what he had learned about snowdrops that he wished he had known at the start of his interest in the flower. “They are not as easy to grow as people would like to think,” he said. “They catch a disease and die off and wholly disappear. What would be a wonderful clump one year will disappear the next. I think it’s important that people realise that they are not just something you can put in the hedge and leave alone.”
I asked him whether that was part of their attraction? “I think so. There’s a slight sort of gamble if people pay high prices. Will the thing come up again next year? It’s always a question. It’s not, by any means, guaranteed,” said John.
His Snowdrops Study Day talk is the event’s ‘headliner’. He will share his thoughts on ‘Woody Plants for the Winter Garden’. “I like to explain to people that a winter garden is not just white in flower. It should be full of interest. The snowdrops are one element within a rich and diverse community of plants that you can bring together to make a garden interesting in winter, not just bulbs but also the whole community of plants – from some big trees with nice bark to smaller shrubs with coloured stems. So many aspects of woody plants complement the winter garden ensemble.”
John says his talk mixes words of inspiration and practical advice. He hopes that he’s more inspiring than detailed. “I want to convey an enthusiasm for a richly diverse winter garden. Yes, there will be some technical stuff, but it’s there for encouraging people to think about something different. A lot of the people there will be highly knowledgeable about gardening in general and in snowdrops. I think I might just need a hint to do something different,” he said.
John spoke at the first Shaftesbury Study Day. He says he’s looking forward to seeing how the snowdrops have come on since the planting of approximately 100,000 bulbs since 2012. “It will be very interesting to see the plantings around the town again, and in the Abbey. It’s been an amazing community project. It’s very impressive.”
John’s talk takes place at Shaftesbury Arts Centre at 2.45 pm on Saturday 8th February 2020. The snowdrop sale takes place the same days at The Guildhall. Tickets for the event are available on Eventbrite.