The carpet of snowdrops stretches across acres of woods that have been allowed to develop naturally for many hundreds of years. It is told that, after being banished from the Garden of Eden, Eve sat on a stone and wept. It was snowing and God, ever merciful, sent an angel to comfort her.
The angel caught a snowflake in her hand and breathed upon it whereupon a single snowdrop appeared at her feet.
The angel named the little flower “Hope” – just the most perfect name for a plant that brings reassurance every year that the long dark winter days are but a passing season.
Snowdrops are native to southern Europe, particularly the Balkans, Southern Russia, Turkey and Iran. They are usually found growing in light woodland or in shade on the edge of forests. As they need some water throughout their growing season they are not found in very dry or desert conditions. The first snowdrops in this country were found growing close to the monasteries built after the arrival of the Normans and had grown from bulbs brought back from Rome by monks and other pilgrims. It has been said that in some monasteries, such as the one that once stood at Welford, the snowdrops were planted as path markers so that the monks, during the night, could find their way in the dark to the latrines in the woods. However if this is so one is left wondering what happened to them when the snowdrops were not in flower!
For most of us snowdrops are snowdrops and to appreciate the wonderful displays in the gardens that are open to the public in February each year, that is all one needs to know.
However, for the experts who like to lie on the ground, even in the snow, identifying the minutest variations of colour and form, there are nineteen different species and over a hundred named variants and hybrids. The botanical name of the snowdrop is Galanthus and those addicted to them are called galanthophiles. The need to spend the early months of each year visiting all the famous snowdrop gardens in the United Kingdom is called galanthophilia and quite definitely not ‘snowdropping’ which, although easier to pronounce, is definitely out on account of it being a term used by the police to describe the theft of underwear from washing lines!
The two easiest snowdrops to start with are Galanthus nivalis and Galanthus plicatus which are happy in any soil and indifferent to the worst weather. There was a time when snowdrops were best purchased and planted ‘in the green’ which meant freshly dug and still attached to their foliage. This was because so many of the bulbs available in shops and garden centres were dried up and had lost the strength to establish themselves when planted. Today reputable bulb dealers store the dormant bulbs in a cool place and ensure that they do not dry up. They can be planted throughout the spring and mid-summer in order to flower early the following year. Plant the bulbs deep enough to conceal them from the squirrels and mice and, after flowering, let the leaves die right back before cutting or mowing. This allows the bulbs to draw the strength they need to flower strongly the following year and grow into a clump.
The acreage of pure white in the woods of Welford is the result of over seven hundred years of natural development but even a few years of care and division of overcrowded clumps will be richly rewarded.
The monks in the monasteries grew snowdrops with which to decorate churches on the occasion of the feast of Candlemas – 2nd February. This is the feast day which celebrates the presentation of the child Jesus in the temple forty days after his birth, as was required by Jewish law, and the purification of The Virgin Mary.
However they were also grown for their healing qualities and if rubbed on the forehead would ease headaches. Today oil extracted from snowdrops is used by the pharmaceutical industry to make a drug, marketed under the name of Riminyl, for the treatment of Alzheimer’s.
The monastery and church at Welford were destroyed during the dissolution of the monasteries in 1536 and, for the next ten years, the estate was used by King Henry V111 for deer hunting. The main part of the present house was built in 1652 and parts were added in 1702 and 1750. Despite changes of surname the house has always remained within the same family and was inherited by the present owners, the Puxley family, in 1954.
By Col Iain A Ferguson LVO, OBE
Welford Park is between Newbury and Hungerford and the post code is RG20 8HU. (check for directions on Googlemaps.)
Tel: 01488 608 691
Picture of the House is by courtesy of Paul Sievers LRPS
Picture of the Grounds courtesy of David Hartley