‘England’s Greatest Snowdrop Garden’

Galanthus nivalis Sandersii Group
Galanthus nivalis Sandersii Group

When I tell people that I am going to look at snowdrops they often look at me quizzically -” surely a snowdrop is a snowdrop is a snowdrop” they say. “What’s the fuss, they are just pretty small white flowers?”  And so it may seem until you start to look beyond the blanket of the big garden retail chains and seek out the specialist nurseries and horticultural groups and then you start to notice, come the winter, that there is a small club within the club who are all obsessed with snowdrops.  They can be seen huddled around a single specimen in a pot discussing its virtues, or lack of, who bred it, its ancestry and you quickly realise that there is a whole hidden world out there – the world of the galanthophile.

I only started to understand the fascination a few years ago when I visited a galanthophile’s garden and saw the different varieties growing alongside each other. It dawns on you that this variety is much taller than that, or some have glaucous leaves, some strappy leaves, some double flowers, some with longer petals than others but the important thing, I think, is that you have to see them growing in a garden setting in clumps to be able to start to see the differences.

Sir Henry Elwes at Colesbourne Gardens
Sir Henry Elwes at Colesbourne Gardens

Today I was fortunate enough to have a tour of Colesbourne Gardens in Gloucestershire, the home of Sir Henry and Lady Elwes. Colebourne has been described in Country Life as ‘England’s greatest snowdrop garden’.  Why is this so when you only have to look in any Sunday supplement or gardening magazine at this time of year to see lists of ‘snowdrop gardens’? Well, apparently it is one of very few, if any, open to the public where you can not only see drifts of the species snowdrops but also sizeable clumps of the more choice varieties planted in a garden setting.  Most snowdrop gardens have the drifts of naturalised snowdrops and some of the specialist gardens have pots of choice snowdrops on display but rarely are the two combined and few take the risk of labelling all their snowdrops including the rare varieties, for fear of theft.

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Sir Henry and Lady Elwes’s attitude is that the garden is a private personal garden which they like to share with the public at this time of year.  Sir Henry’s great-grandfather, Henry James Elwes, was a renowned plant collector and collected the original Galanthus elwesii in Turkey in 1874.  He was a leading light in the galanthophile world of his time and just as now there was much sharing and swapping of plants leading to significant collections being established including at Colesbourne.  Sadly, after his death, his plant collections did not fare too well and were either dispersed or disappeared.  Since inheriting the property Sir Henry and Lady Elwes have worked hard to re-establish the snowdrop collection with the garden opening for the first time in 1997. Establishing such a display is not for the faint hearted or work shy.  Few snowdrops produce seed, so to create the stunning drifts you see you need to lift and divide and replant the clumps on an annual basis.

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In 2003 the couple embarked on a major restoration project with the assistance of the then Garden Manager, Dr John Grimshaw, to restore the gardens and to celebrate the work of their illustrious ancestor.  The work has led to the snowdrop collections being enlarged and added to on a yearly basis with some 5000-6000 bulbs planted up each year for sale.  The Elwes, along with their current Head Gardener, Chris Horsfall, believe in selling the plants growing in pots so you know you will not only get a plant from a reputable source but one that is growing well.  But it isn’t all about the snowdrops, the couple believe strongly in supporting local charities, and over the last 10 years £70,000 has been  raised from catering for visitors and donated to charity.

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At Colesbourne the snowdrops are planted out in the woodland but as you get nearer the house the plantings start to become more formal with a Woodland and Spring garden and then a much more formal garden by the house where the choicest snowdrops live.  I particularly liked the way that the snowdrops in the garden settings were planted amongst plants with good foliage which set off the snowdrops such as cyclamen, corydalis, heuchera, ferns and epimediums.  It showed you that a winter garden really doesn’t have to look dull at all and with a little clever planning the border does not have to be an exclusively winter one if you remember to plant the snowdrops where they won’t be disturbed such as in the shadow of deciduous ferns, bergenias and stacys.

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Having established a reputation for Colesbourne as one of the must see snowdrop gardens, Sir Henry is now working towards achieving a similar reputation for the garden’s arboretum.  His great-grandfather collected many choice trees during his travels and these, along with the snowdrops, still remained when the couple inherited the property.  The style of the arboretum is more naturalistic than say Westonbirt, it is more of a landscape and plantsman’s garden and given the pedigree of some of its specimens it is hardly surprising to discover there are 8 champion trees.  This year, from May, the garden will be opening for arboretum tours.

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Colesbourne Gardens is open to the public on Saturdays and Sundays from 1pm from the 31st January 2015 to 1st March 2015 – details of how to find the garden can be found on their web-site along with details of the study days they are also running.

 

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22 Comments Add yours

  1. I know there are many sorts and some are very expensive !

  2. Glad you had a good time! Nice to see the garden looking well and the snowdrops getting going for their peak next month.

  3. Someday I hope to visit Colesbourne during snowdrop season, but meanwhile thanks for the virtual look.

  4. How exciting for you Helen…..what a wonderful garden and generous owners to share their passion .

  5. I hope to visit once Colesbourne in February. In our country there also are lots of snowdrop events in February, I go to visit one with my daughter, it´s alsways fun to buy a new variety of snowdrop, which are mostly coming from England. But I´m not going to pay an extra-ordinary high price for them.

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Janneke

      I know what you mean about some of the prices, I have seen one last year for £500. However the ones at Colesbourne are far more reasonable starting at £3

    2. Cathy says:

      What a lovely post, Helen. I wish I could have been there, failing that your pictures are a good substitute. The sheets of cyclamen are breath-taking.

    3. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Cathy
      And the cyclamen were self seeding all over the place!

  6. Anna says:

    Oh what a fabulous garden to visit Helen. The snowdrops and cyclamen together look so magical. They have a most tempting sales list too – would that I were nearer. Did you bring any bulbs home with you?

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Anna
      Yes I bought S Arnott, Lady Beatrix Stanley and Mrs McNamara. Also was given a few others 🙂
      I have a snowdrop crossword quiz for you if you would like it, email me your postal address

  7. Yvonne Ryan says:

    The snowdrops look lovely amongst the deciduous trees. Maybe in the South Island they do better with the cold and also their deciduous Northern Hemisphere trees. We seem to have more NZ natives which are evergreen. Still hot 28c – did 1 1/2 hours gardening in the ‘cool’ 25’s! Dripping with sweat so a nice cool shower helped afterwards! Swim soon!

  8. bittster says:

    Your photos are great and they really convey the feeling of the place…. I think at least, since I’ve never been there! Thanks for such an interesting and informative post with all the commentary on history and the redevelopment of the gardens, I really enjoyed it. Glad that you were able to make it and I’m looking forward to seeing your own bulbs come along!
    Frank

  9. GrabCo. says:

    That’s a lovely snowdrop garden indeed Helen. Would you know of such gardens around Hertfordshire?

    1. Helen Johnstone says:

      Hi Kevin

      I dont know of any but I am sure there are. If you look at the RHS or NGS websites I think they have snowdrop gardens listed by county/region

  10. It’s easy to understand the fascination with snowdrops. I only have a few of the most common types but plan to be more adventurous in the future. Thanks for this look at Colesbourne Gardens. Mother Nature has justly rewarded Sir Henry and Lady Elwes for their efforts.

  11. Brian Skeys says:

    We visited Colesbourne when it first opened it was manic but a wonderful garden visit. We are fortunate to have it on our door step. It will be interesting to visit the Arboretum.

  12. Great post. I hadn’t truly realised the difference between the various varieties until I visited The Linns in Dunblane last spring and was totally in awe of what they had achieved in their garden. It’s difficult to come away from such a place without wanting a little bit of it in your own garden.
    Thanks for sharing your visit with us Helen.

  13. hoehoegrow says:

    I think they must be very addictive ! They look fantastic in drifts with the cyclamens. Bet it was a fantastic visit !

  14. This is something you just don’t see here but I adore….snowdrops in drifts…and especially the more unusual ones. What a treat it must have been Helen.

  15. rogerbrook says:

    A friend commented to me recently that he thought galanthophilia was the gardeners’s equivalent of train spotting! 🙂
    But of course snowdrops are wonderful and you visited an absolutely fantastic garden. Lovely pictures.

  16. J-P says:

    Marvellous: another snowdrop find in the Cotswolds; for the past couple of years we’ve gone to Kingston Bagpuise House (and were thinking of taking visitors from Sheffield there next week) but maybe this is an option instead…!

    Incidentally, for locals: it’s worth cycling out in far-west Oxfordshire (Carterton, Burford, even Sherborne) to catch the drifts at this time of year. I’ve occasionally found entire, wooded hillsides festooned with wild snowdrops: suddenly, through the hedgerow, you spot them, floating above the slopes, like elevated banks of snow.

Please feel free to leave comments as its always lovely to get feedback. I try to respond to comments as much as possible but sometimes life and work get in the way but I will do my best to respond especially if your comment is a question.

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