When gardening author and journalist Fionnuala Fallon and her photographer husband Richard (and their twin babies Milo and Finn) travelled the country in search of Ireland’s kitchen gardens, they were searching for the pick of the planting bunch. Here, she tells us of the more modest, but no less intriguing tale of Ireland’s spring flower: the snowdrop.
The keen-eyed will already have spotted them appearing in Irish gardens over the last few weeks; small, huddled groups of people deep in conversation, their knees bent and heads firmly down, bums in the air and magnifying glasses in hand. No, they’re not extras in some detective movie but snowdrop lovers, or – to give them their proper name – galanthophiles.
Their gentle obsession is the many hundreds of different cultivars and hybrids of the Galanthus genus that flower in early spring, dainty snowdrops that can only be distinguished from each other by a multitude of tiny but important details. These include the size, colour and shape of these bulbous plants’ leaves, their flowering period, the shape and colour of the flower itself, any intricate markings on the tepals, the colour of the ovary (golden in some very rare snowdrops), even the length and shape of the threadlike ‘pedicel’ that joins the capsule-shaped ovary to the flower stem.
First-rate public Irish gardens such as the gorgeous Altamont in County Carlow (thanks to Simon Tresize for the charming image below) and Kilmacurragh in County Wicklow as well as noted private gardens (Coosheen in County Cork, Primrose Hill in County Dublin, Gracedieu in County Waterford, Bellefield in County Offaly) are especially celebrated for their extensive snowdrop collections, which also include many uniquely Irish cultivars. Every one of these tiny spring flowers comes with their own fascinating history, many of them stubborn survivors of gardens long gone and sometimes (but not always) forgotten.
The very early-flowering Irish snowdrop ‘Castlegar’, for instance, originated in the Galway gardens of Castlegar, the centuries-old ancestral home of the Mahons, where it was found and named by the late great Irish horticulturist Dr Keith Lamb in 1985. Another celebrated Irish snowdrop, Galanthus ‘Hill Poe’, was discovered growing in a Tipperary garden over a hundred years ago. Deliciously ruffled, its dainty, double, white-and-green flowers always attract gasps of admiration. Then there is Galanthus ’Cicely Hall, named after the expert gardener and creator of the snowdrop gardens at Primrose Hill, the late Mrs Cicely Hall. Another, Galanthus ‘Straffan’ which the Irish galanthophile Paddy Tobin considers ‘the champion of Irish snowdrops’, originated from a bunch of snowdrop bulbs brought home from the Crimean war in the mid-1850s by the owner of Straffan House.
As for the story of how Galanthus ‘Kildare’ came into cultivation, it’s serendipity itself. In 1995 two noted British snowdrop experts David and Ruby Baker were en-route through County Kildare when they got lost in the network of high-hedged, country lanes that criss-cross this part of Ireland. Stopping the car to stretch their legs, the couple noticed the ruins of an old lodge-house, a small, roadside building that usually signifies the existence of a once sizeable historical estate and its gardens. Wandering through the old gates, the Bakers then spotted several snowdrops growing in its abandoned gardens, amongst which was a particularly fine, large-flowered, green-striped flower that they eventually called ‘Kildare’. Exactly the sort of chance discovery that every galanthophile dreams of making…
Curious about Ireland’s kitchen gardens? Fionnnuala and Richard’s book From the Ground Up: How Ireland is Growing its Own is available on Amazon. It’s curious characters, quirky gardens and beautiful images.