Monday, 9 February 2015

Snowdrops at Colesbourne Park

Colesbourne Park is one of the gardens featured in my new book, Secret Gardens of the Cotswolds, and although it may seem a bit unfair to have favourites, this is a garden for which I have a sneaking affection.
First, it's a snowdrop garden, only open at weekends from the end of January to the beginning of March. I think there is a certain poignancy about gardens which have one particular moment in which to shine, especially if that moment is during one of the miserable months of the year.
Second, Colesbourne has an interesting history, not only from a horticultural point of view, but also in terms of social change during the past 100 years.
Before the First World War, there were 14 glasshouses at Colesbourne, each with its own microclimate, and a gardening staff of 10. Its owner, Henry John Elwes, was a British botanist and plant hunter, who discovered Galanthus elwesii, the large snowdrop named after him, near what is now Izmir in Turkey.
Elwes amassed an impressive bulb collection, but he was also interested in trees, and co-wrote The Trees of Great Britain and Ireland with Augustine Henry. His great-grandson, Sir Henry Elwes, who now runs the estate with his wife Carolyn, told me a wonderful story of how Henry John Elwes turned to his wife after lunch one day and said: "Wrap up the ham, my dear, I'm off to see a tree." The tree was the monkey puzzle (Araucaria araucana), and he was going to see it in its native habitat: Chile.
Like many country estates in Britain, Colesbourne bears the scars of two world wars. After the 1914-18 war, a shortage of labour meant that the days of gardening on the scale of Henry John's collection were numbered. The house was requisitioned during the Second World War and when the present Sir Henry inherited the estate in the Fifties, the house was derelict. Much of the garden was choked with brambles and it was while trying to clear these that Lady Elwes discovered clumps of snowdrops flourishing beneath.
Today, Colesbourne has an impressive snowdrop collection, but part of its charm is that you can see snowdrops growing as they would in the wild, you can see them growing in the spring garden alongside other winter flowers such as hellebores and cyclamen, and you can get up close and personal with the really choice varieties in the formal garden behind the house.
One of the most impressive things about Colesbourne, however, is not a flower but the lake, which has the most amazing turquoise-blue colour thanks to the colloidal clay suspended in the water (below).

I visited yesterday, accompanied by VP who had just returned from visiting yet more snowdrop gardens but was keen to see Colesbourne. The weather forecast predicted a dull, dank day, but luckily the Met Office was completely wrong. (Now there's a thing!) It was a lovely day, with brilliant sunshine.

There are more than 250 different trees at Colesbourne and one of the innovations this year will be the arboretum tours, which will be led either by Sir Henry, or by the head gardener, Chris Horsfall.

Yesterday, though, the snowdrops were the main focus, and they looked spectacular.

This is Galanthus elwesii 'Mrs McNamara', apparently named after Dylan Thomas's mother-in-law.
"Hmm, she's gone over a bit," observed VP.  I expect Dylan Thomas felt the same way about his mother-in-law.

Colesbourne are good at labelling their snowdrops, but it's also lovely just to look at sheets and sheets of the fragrant white flowers. I never used to see the point of all those snowdrop varieties, and I'm still a long way from being a galanthophile, but Chris Horsfall has managed to turn me into someone who at least knows the difference between Galanthus woronowii (bright green glossy leaves) and, say, Galanthus elwesii 'Comet' (large U-shaped green mark on the inner petals).
I know that Heyrick Greatorex (what a name - it sounds like someone clearing their throat) bred double hybrid snowdrops and named them after female characters from Shakespeare, and I know that Galanthus plicatus 'Augustus' (one of VP's favourites) is named after E A Bowles, whose middle name was Augustus. I'm beginning to scare myself!

I had never grown Cyclamen coum before I moved to the Cotswolds - my garden in London was not damp enough. I now have some that I bought from Colesbourne last year, and they are delightful partners for snowdrops.

The marbled foliage makes a good foil for snowdrop flowers, and the combination of pink and white on a sunny day is quite mouth-watering. Both plants emerge and die down at roughly the same time, and like the same conditions; a sheltered spot beneath deciduous trees that's not too damp, but doesn't dry out completely. 

It has become popular in the past few years to plant snowdrops "in the green", which has advantages for gardeners. You can see exactly where they are going to go and how they are going to look, and they seem to do better. However, experts like Chris Horsfall and John Grimshaw, Chris's predecessor at Colesbourne and arguably the UK's greatest snowdrop expert, say that it is best to plant them when they are dormant - i.e. as bulbs.
If this is true, why do we amateurs have more success planting them in the green? Well, part of the problem is the way bulbs are supplied to the UK. Commercial growers in Turkey let the bulbs dry out before packaging them up, and once they reach Britain, they sit around on displays in garden centres and supermarkets. Hardly the ideal environment for a plant that likes a humus-rich soil on the edges of woodland and along hedgerows.
The best compromise, as far as I can see, would be to buy the bulbs in the green from a good source, such as Colesbourne, and let them go over while they are still in the pot. Then plant them in the garden once the foliage has started to wither.

So which snowdrops do I have in my garden? I'll tell you about them in my next post.