Snowdrop fanciers and their mania
BBC: Forget trainspotting and bird twitching, a snowdrop hunting craze is starting to take hold.
Understated they may be, but snowdrops have a very dedicated following. Record prices are being paid for single bulbs and a lucrative industry is developing to satisfy the demand of the growing number of galanthophiles - or snowdrop fanciers to the uninitiated.
Not native to the UK, no-one can say for sure when snowdrops were brought into the country. But they became fashionable in the mid-19th Century when the small, white flower caught the eye of the Victorians. In recent years they have become something of a cult flower again.
February is the month a lot of varieties flower in the UK and when things seriously kick off for galanthophiles. Every year there are an increasing number of snowdrop events and study days.
There's also an annual gala, due to be held in Devon in a few weeks time, that attracts people from Australia, Japan and the US. The tickets sell out as fast as a Justin Bieber concert and gardening chatrooms are buzzing with talk of it. The biggest snowdrop event is in Germany at the end of the month, it attracts over 3,000 galanthophiles.
"A mania has developed around snowdrops," says Matt Bishop, a leading expert on the plant and co-author of Snowdrops: A Monograph Of Cultivated Galanthus.
"There has been a big increase in interest in them. Like anything in life, there are fashions in plants and snowdrops just seem to have caught people's imagination."
Why this has happened is a question even the experts find hard to fully explain - including Dr John Grimshaw, of Colesbourne Park, Gloucestershire. He oversees a snowdrop collection of 250 cultivated varieties. He says orchids are a good comparison when it comes to the level of devotion that snowdrops inspire.
"But it is still a little bit odd that such a humble plant can create such passion - obsession even. Many plants have fanciers, but snowdrops are far less obvious than most others."
It's equally hard to say what type of person is a galanthophile.
"It's all sorts but that's what makes it good fun," says Maggie Danes, a snowdrop fancier. "There is a real social side to it. You get to know people at the events. You just get bitten by the bug. Snowdrops are so unassuming, but there is so much to them as well."
And galanthophiles are all over the world. Grimshaw, also co-author of a book on snowdrops, is off to Australia later this year to lecture on the flowers. He has also been to the US and Europe to speak to galanthophiles.
They are also all ages. Bishop is hosting a Snowdrop Study Day next week. It is the second year he has organised the event at the Garden House in Devon, where he is head gardener. Of the people attending, ages range from teenagers to those pushing their 90s
Galanthus 'Green Tear' was found in the Netherlands and is distinctly and strongly green inside and out. A single bulb sold on eBay last months for £360. Available stock at present is very limited
'S Arnott' is a classic garden snowdrop - inexpensive, freely available, with a strong scent
Galanthus plicatus 'E A Bowles' has a pure white flower in which the petals are all the same length. It is very highly sought-after and expensive. Last year one bulb sold at auction for £357
Source: Dr John Grimshaw
Some are getting increasingly competitive when it comes to getting what they want. One collector paid £360 on eBay last month for a single Galanthus "Green Tear" bulb. It's a new record price for the most expensive snowdrop bulb ever sold, say experts.
The appeal of snowdrops is down to the time of year when most varieties flower, say many enthusiasts. While a few bloom in autumn, most come out in January, February and March.
"It is much easier to appreciate a flower in January than May when everything else is blooming," says Carolyn Walker, an American galanthophile from Pennsylvania.
Bishop agrees: "They are humble and meek but when there are so few other plants around it really sharpens your appreciation of them."
The large variety of snowdrops also plays a part and different cultivars (varieties grown under cultivation) are being developed all the time.
When Bishop and Grimshaw published their snowdrop monograph in 2002 it included 500 varieties. They are currently updating the book, which will be republished later this year, and estimate they will have to include up to 1,500 new cultivars.
The sheer variety has created some avid collectors, like the buyer of the "Green Tear" bulb.
"That bulb went for quite an extraordinary price," says Grimshaw. "There is a growing industry around snowdrops, some people think they can make quick money. It's collectors who are fuelling this frenzy. They want the very latest thing.
"When new cultivars are offered for sale for the first time, initially there are just three, four or five plants available. That's in the whole of the world. People are prepared to sharpen their elbows and dig deep into their pockets to buy them."
At the end of most galanthophile events there are usually sales which are mayhem, say organisers.
"Things get very competitive, especially if there is something new on offer," says Bishop. "It ends up being a bit of a bun fight, but it's all good-natured."
But even more common varieties are in demand. Avon Bulbs, a specialist bulb growers and suppliers in Somerset, published its latest catalogue a few weeks ago. The 100 varieties on sale range from a few pounds to up to £60 for a bulb. Many have sold out already, says owner Chris Ireland-Jones.
"I discovered there wasn't just one kind of snowdrop and began planting other common varieties," says Walker, who sells snowdrops at her own nursery Carolyn's Shade Gardens. "That in turn evolved into collecting. The more you work with snowdrops, the more you appreciate the differences."
Being a galanthophile from outside Europe, and a few other countries like Turkey, takes an extra level of devotion.
In a lot of countries many varieties are not readily available. Snowdrops are covered by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (Cites).
This happened after the mass exploitation of wild snowdrops in Turkey in the 1980s, says Grimshaw. It covers all types and means to sell a single bulb you need a licence and the right documentation.
"It keeps most of the interesting cultivars out of the US," says Walker, who knows American galanthophiles who have travel to Europe just to see snowdrops.
"It is illegal for snowdrops to cross international boundaries without special Cites permits. Even with these permits, the last US attempt to import them from England ended with the plants being turned back at US Customs."
But with a lot of love, devotion and money, some US galanthophiles have put together private collections.
"I never turn down an opportunity to visit them," says Walker. "But some people don't want to publicise their collections because of fear of theft."
Such thefts have happened in the UK.
It's not quite the contemporary equivalent of 17th-Century Holland's tulip fever, but for galanthophiles snowdrops have it all. They're hardy, but look beautiful.
They have a lot of history, but are developing all the time. And of course they are the first flowers of spring.
By Denise Winterman
BBC News Magazine