There was a sense of excitement at the Garden House in Devon this weekend. A Galanthus “Primrose Warburg”, a charming white and yellow snowdrop, had just appeared. “It is a lovely one,” said visitor services manager Karen Willcocks. “It’s just a pity more people can’t be here to see it.”
Usually at this time of year snowdrop aficionados (or galanthophiles) are heading to the village of Buckland Monachorum in their droves to spy examples of the beloved flower in the grounds of the Garden House. As the days lengthen and February approaches, wonderful, subtle-scented, crowd-pleasing drifts form.
But 2021’s Garden House snowdrop festival has become another casualty of the Covid crisis, a huge shame because this harbinger of spring is putting on one of its best shows ever on the edge of Dartmoor. Local people are being allowed in to take their permitted exercise but most galanthophiles will have to stay away.
However, to try to fill the gap, the Garden House snowdrops is staging what it confidently believes to be the UK’s first “virtual snowdrop festival”.
Every day the team of gardeners and student horticulturalists Rose and Rosie will go out into the snowdrop drifts and post live images of the flowers as they appear, dots of brightness that shine in the winter gloom.
“We’re actually really excited now about our virtual snowdrop festival,” said Willcocks. “People travel from across the UK to see our snowdrops, so this seems like the perfect way to share their beauty and a great way to give people a daily treat – something to look forward to in lockdown.”
Another snowdrop that has just made an appearance is Galanthus elwesii “Godfrey Owen”, which has grey-green leaves and white flowers on stems around 20cm tall. Its flowers feature six pure white, symmetrical outer petals which open to give a wide, lamp-shade-like form over six inner petals, each of which bears a green mark.
The house and gardens, once home of the vicars of Buckland Monachorum, trace their history back to 1305 and feature romantic ruins including a tower with a spiral staircase and a thatched barn.
A modern vicarage was built in the 1920s and just after the second world war was bought by Lionel Fortescue, a retiring Eton master and his wife, Katharine, who set about renovating and developing their garden. They bequeathed the house and garden to the Fortescue Garden Trust, an independent charity that continues to run the property.
The snowdrops bloom from September through to March, peaking in January and February, and are carefully labelled, tucked into herbaceous borders, scattered across banks, some in in plain sight but also tucked away in secret corners.
There are scores of types of various shapes, colours (the pink snowdrop Galanthus nivalis “Blushing Pendant” is one lots of visitors look out for) and scents.
The collection was established by expert Matt Bishop, former head gardener at the Garden House and one of the authors of the “galanthophile bible”, Snowdrops: a Monograph of Cultivated Galanthus.
Snowdrops collected by a second expert, Colin Mason, who travelled to Turkey and Georgia, sometimes searching on horseback for unusual examples of the flower, have been added to the grounds.
Willcocks said she believed the sight of snowdrops, whether viewed in person by local people or online by those who are not allowed to visit, would be a balm in these most difficult of times.
“The snowdrop collection is not only extraordinarily pretty, it’s a unique chance to see some of the rarest varieties of snowdrop in an exceptionally beautiful setting. We hope it will help people.”