Tag Archives: snowdrops

Magic carpet

Snowdrops on a hillside

Snowdrops on a hillside

July may be the bleakest month of winter for us but it is also snowdrop time and these little charmers brighten the greyest of days. You can never have too many snowdrops in my opinion, and the varieties that do well with us are building up to a satisfying level. By definition, that is when we have enough to move them out of optimal garden or nursery conditions and start establishing them in carpets.

It is our interest in what we call “romantic gardening” – others refer to it as “naturalistic gardening” – that we derive as much, if not more pleasure from plants naturalised in meadow conditions as we do from cultivated, tightly maintained garden beds. It is a blurring of the edges in gardening, exploring how far we can replicate the simple charm of wildflowers but in a managed situation.

Lachenalia aloides and grape hyacinths (muscari) at the base of Pinus muricata

Lachenalia aloides and grape hyacinths (muscari) at the base of Pinus muricata

It is not as easy as it sounds. Many of the charming bulbs in their natural environment have conditions which are much harsher than here. Winters that are very cold and often dry mean that most growth stops, as do summers that are hot and dry. But in our dairy-farming heartland, soft conditions keep grass growing all year round and that growth will simply swamp most bulbs. It has taken us some years to learn to manage this. Selecting bulbs that will cope in our conditions has been trial and error.

Bluebells and hooped petticoats (Narcissus bulbocodium) planted at the base of a eucalypt

Bluebells and hooped petticoats (Narcissus bulbocodium) planted at the base of a eucalypt

It also takes eleventy thousand more bulbs than you think it will. Even bulk buying a couple of hundred bulbs is not going to create much of a carpet in the short term. To get a quick result using large bulbs like daffodils or bluebells, planting at one every 10 square centimetres means 100 per square metre. I worked this out because I was planting a little mixed area. Using dainties like erythroniums, dwarf daffodils, snowdrops, crocus and rhodohypoxis, it took about 4 of these small bulbs per 10 square centimetres – or 400 per square metre. That is a large number and may explain why we don’t see many bulb meadows in this country, beyond well established fields of daffodils dating back many decades. Obviously, if you plant at greater spacings, you can cover a larger area but you will wait longer for the carpet effect.

Colchicum autumnale flowering at the base of a metasequoia

Colchicum autumnale flowering at the base of a metasequoia

While planting around tree trunks is not the same thing as naturalising bulbs in a meadow situation, it proved to be a good place to start for us. We have many trees in fairly open situations where it is possible to establish easy bulbs beneath. Most bulbs need sun so these need to be trees with a higher canopy to allow light below. Planting amongst the exposed roots of established trees ensures the bulbs don’t get mown off or trampled as they surface and generally they get established with little competition. It is also an effective way of controlling some of the invasive bulbs like ipheions and ornamental oxalis.

Scattering seed is hit and miss and slower to give any results but much easier. We were delighted this year to see Cyclamen hederafolium showing its colours where Mark had scattered fresh seed several years ago. He had given up hope that it would work but lo, there are rewards for patient gardeners and the older we get, the more patience we seem to be developing.

 Bluebells planted on the margins, drifting through our park area

Bluebells planted on the margins, drifting through our park area

Bluebells are easy and we have used them in swathes around shrubs in the area we call our park. Because they are flowering at the same time as the full flush of spring grass growth, we have to keep them to the side of areas we need to mow. Bluebell, and indeed snowdrop, woods that we have admired in Britain are carpets beneath deciduous trees. Our woodland areas are heavily dominated by evergreens so we don’t get enough light to replicate those carpets here. That is why we have to opt for the margins instead.

The triumph of experience has been getting grassy banks with dwarf narcissi and snowdrops naturalised. To do this, Mark spent some years establishing the native grass, microlina. It is finer and less vigorous so doesn’t swamp the bulbs and can be controlled with minimal cutting – just a pass over with the weedeater from time to time. It is not quite the same as a bulb meadow, but we have learned to work with what we have here.

Carrying a tray of Nerine pudica, in case you are wondering (which I admit I planted in the rockery, not in meadows)

Carrying a tray of Nerine pudica, in case you are wondering (which I admit I planted in the rockery, not in meadows)

First published in the July issue of New Zealand Gardener and reprinted here with their permission.

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Winter whites

Ripples on the ice formed on a farm trough

Ripples on the ice formed on a farm trough

July is our bleakest winter month here. We feel the cold, especially this week with three sharp frosts in a row which is unusual for us, but the daytime temperatures rarely drop below double figures (Celsius). The ice photo is from a water trough on the coldest part of the property. Mark was very taken with the patterns.

Early Pearly - the loveliest of sasanqua camellia flower forms

Early Pearly – the loveliest of sasanqua camellia flower forms

But cold is a relative thing and a winter here in Taranaki remains full of flowers. I was playing around with white camellia blooms because I had been reminded of our love affair with white flowers in this country. The ‘any colour is fine as long as it is white” syndrome, perhaps. I am sure gardeners in parts of the world which spend many weeks or months or under snow might find this national obsession with white flowers puzzling. I suspect it may derive from a sense of social envy – Sissinghurst’s white garden has a lot to answer for here in the antipodes.

As I progressed on my white flower assemblages, often having to pick the flowers because it has been raining or windy, I began to feel positively bridal despite the winter chill.
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The Montanoa bipinnatifida has passed over and the monarch butterflies have moved onto an obscure michelias species that is flowering. The frosts have dealt to the Dahlia imperialis alba this week and Luculia ‘Fragrant Pearl’ is passing over, but there is plenty of white in evidence. Yes, it is a dead harrier hawk above – killed on the road but passed on to a Maori weaver to use the feathers. In the basket starting at the back is one of the gordonias. They have been particularly good this season. Then the small flowers are Camellia transnokoensis  which we rate highly as a small leaved, miniature flowered species which we are using as hedging. We replaced some buxus hedging with this camellia. For, Mark reasoned, how much better to have a hedge that has pretty flowers which make a contribution to the ecosystem by feeding birds and insects. Next is another species, Camellia gauchowensis, Camellia sasanqua Mine No Yuki, Early Pearly and at the front Camellia drupifera. 

Camellia transnokoensis

Camellia transnokoensis

Picked in the rain today

Picked in the rain today

Daphne bholua

Daphne bholua

At the top we have Mark’s new Daphne Perfume Princess – not pure white by any manner of means but the overall display is more white than coloured. Next to it is one of our favourite species, Camellia yuhsienensis, whose flowers are like the michelias of the camellia world. Below is the Himalayan daphne,  Daphne bholua  , which has the sweetest perfume of any daphne we know but suffers from scruffy growth and badly behaved habits of suckering and seeding. Next is Rose Flower Carpet White (does it ever stop blooming?) and then the pretty bloom of Superstar – another white camellia which we rate highly on garden performance and weather hardiness – at least when compared to most larger flowered whites.

 

Galanthus - the winter snowdrops
We may not get a long season from the galanthus and they certainly don’t peek through the snow here, but the simple charm is constant. Galanthus elwesii and Galanthus ‘S Arnott’ are the most reliable performers in our conditions. Although we grow some other varieties, these two are our mainstay.

067Finally today, I headed out into the chill to find the white evergreen azaleas, the very first of the new season’s michelias (deliciously fragrant) and white hellebores. By this time, I found my eyes being drawn to colour and red blooms were demanding my attention. I would find a monochromatic garden soon palled but the colours  will have to wait for another day as I end with the simple perfection of Camellia Superstar below.

Superstar (6)

Pink & white parade

April is the cruellest month, wrote T.S. Eliot in his famous poem, The Waste Land. Not, I have to say, out of fear of late frosts in a northern hemisphere spring, as one gardening wit thought. Here, it is July that brings us the bleakest days of winter.

But as July progresses, it also heralds the start of a new gardening year. Magnolias and snowdrops mark the passing of winter into spring.

Magnolia campbellii

Magnolia campbellii

The first deciduous magnolia of the season to open is always M. campbellii. There is an attractive group of them in New Plymouth on Powderham Street and the first flowers on those appear in late June, sometimes before all the leaves have fallen. Asphalt and concrete in cities raise temperatures enough to trigger flowering earlier than in country areas. M. campbellii is not a great option in colder parts of the country because frosts can take the early blooms out but where space and climate allow, it is beautiful. Our tree was considerably larger until a falling Lombardy poplar took out half of it, but it is staging a comeback. There is a white form too, but the pink is generally regarded as superior.

Magnolia Vulcan

Magnolia Vulcan

July also sees the first blooms opening on Magnolias ‘Lanarth’ and ‘Vulcan’. The latter was bred here by my late father in law, Felix Jury, and marked the first of the new generation red-toned magnolias. For several years after we first released it, we used to be able to track it flowering down the country by the phone enquiries. It opens in Northland much earlier than it shows colour in Otago and Southland.

Magnolia Lanarth

Magnolia Lanarth

Lanarth (technically M. campbellii var. mollicomata ‘Lanarth’) remains the best purple available, in our opinion, even though its flowering season is brief because it only sets flower buds on the tips and they all bloom at once, rather than in sequence down the stems. It is worth having in a large garden because it will take your breath away for two or three weeks in late July and early August but smaller gardens probably need trees with a longer season.

Galanthus  S. Arnott

Galanthus S. Arnott

At the other end of the scale, we find snowdrops enchanting. We have tried growing a wide range of different species but in the end it is Galanthus nivalus ‘S. Arnott’ that is happiest here in the mid north, although we also get a good run from the larger leafed G. elwesii. Gardeners in cooler, southern areas will have a bigger selection to choose from but we have to go with what performs here.

Snowdrops are one of the few bulbs where the standard advice is to lift and divide in full growth – usually straight after flowering although there is no reason why you can’t do it when they are dormant. They multiply satisfyingly well and we are on a mission to spread these charmers in huge swathes throughout the garden.
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What northerners often call snowdrops are not. They are leucojums, commonly called snowflakes. Proper snowdrops are much smaller and prettier. They have a central cup surrounded by three longer petals that look like dainty wings. Leucojums, on the other hand, just have the cup as a bloom and are much stronger growing with plenty of foliage that looks like daffodil leaves. You often see them growing in paddocks around old farmhouses. Some of the bigger flowered selections make good garden plants (Leucojum vernum ‘Gravetye Giant’ is the one we use), because they have a much longer flowering season than galanthus. But they lack the dainty refinement of the proper snowdrop. There can be little doubt about that.

First publshed in the New Zealand Gardener July issue and reprinted here with their permission.

Plant Collector: Galanthus S Arnott

What can be prettier than snowdrops in the depths of winter?

What can be prettier than snowdrops in the depths of winter?

Are there any bulbs more charming than proper English snowdrops? Except that they are not English at all, having been introduced from Europe where they have a wide distribution. I had thought they were called ‘snowdrops’ because they often peek through snow (a light covering, I assume because they only grow about 15 to 20cm high) to herald the coming of spring, but I see the botanical name translates from Greek as milk flower. Because we lack the chilly temperatures and snow here, we are limited in the range of galanthus that we can grow well. There is such a word as a “galanthophile” – one who is obsessed with the genus but you would have a hard job earning that epithet here in the mid north. Easily the best performing snowdrop for us is Galanthus S. Arnott which never fails to delight and increases satisfyingly well. We keep gently increasing its spread around the garden and that also staggers the flowering because it will come in later in colder parts.

You don’t get a long flowering season but oh they are so very charming. The proper snowdrop has a little inner trumpet of three petals surrounded by a skirt of three outer petals which look like little wings. Sometimes people refer to the stronger growing snowflake, often seen in paddocks, as a snowdrop. But it is not. It only has the inner trumpet of petals and lacks the delicate charm. It is also a different genus, being a leucojum.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

More mid winter delight than harbinger of spring – galanthus (snowdrops)

Galanthus S Arnott is a wonderful performer here

Galanthus S Arnott is a wonderful performer here

It’s snowdrop time. Proper snowdrops which are galanthus. These are widely referred to as English snowdrops, though they are not. In fact they occur naturally throughout Europe and down through the Mediterranean. It is just that the English have made them their own and who can blame them? Snowdrops rank right up there beside daffodils for that feeling of seasonal wonder.

We lack the snow of course, so we don’t get the simple picture of the flowers appearing through melting snow. I assume this is why they are called snowdrops in common parlance.

We will never be galanthophiles here, though that has more to do with climate than anything else. We have a number of different types of snowdrops but most are very marginal in our mild conditions and we struggle to keep them going here so there is no point whatever in collecting as many different ones as we can and keeping them separate, as galanthophiles will. While there are only about twenty species, there are hundreds of named varieties. Most of these are species selections. In other words, while snowdrops will seed down in the wild, particular variations have been selected out and then propagated from that original bulb (as opposed to raised from seed which won’t keep the variation stable – most will revert immediately to the usual form). We could only look in awe at the fabulous prices paid for a very good new white and yellow snowdrop in the UK last year. It was knocking on the door of past times when the wealthy paid vast amounts for a new tulip bulb. While we have the old double variety, G. nivalis Flore Pleno, we have not sought the many variants on doubles. Flore Pleno is not flowering yet so I can’t photograph it but it looks a bit of a mutant and lacks the charm of the simpler, more natural forms in my eyes.

In this country, if you want to see snowdrops in all their glory, the place to go to is Maple Glen where Muriel Davison has built up extensive plantings in her large garden. Unfortunately for northerners, it is sited at Wyndham between Gore and Invercargill so few of us are likely to make it at the right time. Or time a late winter trip to the UK. For years I had a photo a reader sent me of a carpet of snowdrops (and we are talking bulbs in the magnitude of five to six figures all in bloom at the same time) beneath white barked birches somewhere in England.

So I know that our snowdrop efforts here are modest by those standards. But we have snowdrops, and quite a few of them now. The one variety that performs consistently well in our conditions, flowering reliably every year and building up readily, is Galanthus S. Arnott. Apparently it is equally good in the UK because it has been given an Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society.

The peak flowering season is not a long one. It is just enchanting while it lasts and snowdrops lend themselves to drifts in garden borders, on woodland margins, in our growing bulb hillside (coming through the grass) as well as being featured in rockery pockets. They flower at a time when there is not a lot else out. While typically regarded as harbingers of spring, they are more mid winter. We keep gently spreading them further afield in the garden. Many British gardens open in February for what is often called a snowdrop weekend. That is the aim here. It may take us another decade to get sufficient carpets of snowdrops to warrant declaring snowdrop weekend, but we could never be accused of taking the short term view of gardening. And we are well on the way.

Curiously with snowdrops, the practice is to lift, divide and replant soon after flowering. There aren’t many bulbs where you are advised to move them in full growth. In England they are often sold as “green bundles” when still in growth. I have taken from this that they are not fussy so I move them any time now – whether dormant or at any stage of growth. Typical of all bulbs, they need good drainage and reasonable light levels. Woodlands overseas are largely deciduous which means they have more light. Our dominance of evergreens in this country leans us more towards forest than woodland. That is why we go for planting the margins rather than the depths.

Finally, just for clarification, what is often referred to as a snowdrop in New Zealand is an entirely different family. The leucojum is much stronger growing, often found in old homestead paddocks, associating with daffodils. It has the little cup without the surrounding skirt of petals and is less refined than a proper snowdrop. Notwithstanding that, it is an under-rated garden plant with a very long flowering season. But it is a snowflake not a snowdrop.

Snowflake (leucojum) to the left and snowdrop (galanthus) to the right

Snowflake (leucojum) to the left and snowdrop (galanthus) to the right

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

Tikorangi Notes

Latest Posts:

1) July 23, 2010: The yellow Lachenalia reflexa midst English snowdrops – the delight of the early bulbs.

2) July 23, 2010: Recommended tasks for this week in the garden – our winters do not last long here.

3) July 23, 2010: Heucheras are a tried and true plant, readily available from every garden centre in an ever increasing colour range but they do need a little attention if the clumps are to grow larger, rather than smaller.

4) July 23, 2010: Outdoor Classroom – the hows and wherefores of long overdue pruning of elderly apple trees. Our step by step guide.

Naturalising the snowdrops takes some special efforts here. The rhododendron leaf belongs to a sino nuttallii

Tikorangi Notes: July 23, 2010

While there is considerable anticipation looking at the early magnolias laden with big, fat furry buds (sleeping bags for mice, our children used to describe the furry casings in years gone by), it is the tiny vision of the English snowdrops with which we are currently delighted. We can understand why these pretty, dainty little flowers give rise to such passion in dedicated collectors (are they called galanthophiles?) We are hardly good snowdrop territory here so we confine ourselves to the few varieties which will keep performing happily in our mild conditions. Managing to get some drifts established in a meadow situation is no mean feat. Meadows are not easy here. Our grass growth is so rampant we mow the lawns all year – weekly for most of it and fortnightly in the depths of winter when the growth slows. It is a bit much to expect bulbs or wildflowers to compete with such vigorous growth. In order to get this bank of bulbs started, Mark has had to discourage the stronger grasses and encourage a much slower growing, less competitive native microlina grass which won’t swamp the little treasures.

The galanthus only flower for a few weeks, but for that short time they are one of the most charming of all seasonal bulbs.

The Plant Collector: Lachenalia reflexa

The earliest bulbs are in flower - Lachenalia reflexa midst the snowdrops

The earliest bulbs are in flower - Lachenalia reflexa midst the snowdrops

I have this little self-imposed rule which is that I can’t repeat a plant (at least, not yet) so the plant this week is not the delightful English snowdrops (this form is Galanthus S. Arnott which is the most reliable performer in our conditions), even though the clumps and drifts we have in full flower throughout the garden are an absolute delight. No, we are looking at the yellow flowers coming through with the snowdrops. This is Lachenalia reflexa. It is the yellowest of the lachenalias we grow here, all of which are native to South Africa. There are well over 100 different species, often taken for granted in their homeland where they are just wild flowers. Not all are easy to grow. Reflexa isn’t too difficult though it is not particularly vigorous, which is why it is not common. The yellow is a pure bright lemon shade, sometimes with green markings which fade out as the flower matures. Like most lachenalias, it doesn’t hang onto its foliage for particularly long after flowering. These plants are growing on the edge of our gravel driveway beside a low stone wall. Many of the species bulbs (which is as they occur in the wild) are used to surviving in quite harsh conditions with little soil and low fertility. If you try and treat them like choice garden plants, they don’t always cope. The critical issue, as always with bulbs, is to ensure excellent drainage, even more so when they are dormant (in summer for reflexa), to avoid them rotting out.