Three snowdrops – a lady, a wizard, and an oddball
It’s the middle of February and, in this part of the world at least, the time for admirers of snowdrops to enjoy and share their enthusiasm for these winter flowers. This year, however, our activities have been somewhat curtailed so I’ve taken the opportunity to look more closely at each one, noting all their differences, their little foibles and eccentricities, and finding out a bit more about them. Let me introduce these three companions.
Lady Beatrix Stanley
The lady in question is Galanthus ‘Lady Beatrix Stanley’. It’s difficult to have a favourite snowdrop, because you change your mind as each new one flowers, but this one is right up there for me. It is early and lasts in bloom for ages, and stands up well to bad weather – and, my goodness, we’ve had some bad weather this year. Whereas many doubles are heavy, and some downright ugly, Lady Beatrix is dainty and refined.
Lady Beatrix Taylour, born in 1877, was a keen plantswoman who inherited the family gardening gene. She married Sir George Stanley, a soldier and then a politician, and, apart from five years spent in India, where he was Governor of Madras (now Chennai), they lived at Sibbertoft Manor, in Northamptonshire. There she filled the garden with herbaceous plants, alpines, and bulbs, including masses of snowdrops, narcissus, fritillaries, and lilies. Gardening and plants were her passion.
She was a very keen member of the RHS, visiting shows and later becoming a member of two committees. She visited gardens wherever she went, filling notebooks with every detail of the plants she saw. She read widely and kept articles that impressed her, including every one by E. A. Bowles. She and Bowles became great friends and she joined his ‘snowdrop circle’, a group of enthusiasts who exchanged information and bulbs of the plants they loved. This diverse group of people helped to build the foundation for the enormous interest in snowdrops that there is today.
Lady Beatrix Stanley died in 1944.
The plant that bears her name wasn’t named formally until 1981 but had been distributed since the 1950’s as ‘G. caucasicus, double’, and in all probability, came from her garden. The narrow leaves are supervolute, about 10cm long, and glaucous. The scape is about 15cm when the plant blooms. The spathe is arched but the pedicel rather stiff with a tight bend just behind the ovary. The bright green ovary is cone-shaped, which seems to add to the flower’s delicacy. The outer perianth segments are long and strongly incurved at the sides, making them look narrow. This allows a clear view of the inner segments, which form a tightly-packed ruff. Each slightly flared inner segment has a mark on either side of the wide, shallow sinus, with a faint mark joining the two.
Galanthus ‘Lady Beatrix Stanley’ is beautiful, delicate, understated, yet strong.
The wizard, Galanthus ‘Merlin’, is a different kettle of fish altogether! Just look at him strutting his stuff. He is definitely not to be messed with – in my opinion.
But others beg to differ. And those others are no other than Messers Bishop, Davis, and Grimshaw. In their book, Snowdrops, they describe, ‘The poor shape of its inelegant, dumpy flowers, with their fairly short outer segments, is emphasized by the pronounced constriction where the rather large pea-shaped ovary joins the segments.’ Ouch!
Many other writers sing Merlin’s praises and I have certainly appreciated this tall, strong snowdrop for many years, regarding it as one of the best. I have always thought that it was a modern variety so was surprised when I found out how wrong I was.
It was introduced by James Allen, one of the most important early galanthophiles. Born in 1832 into a family of corn and cheese merchants in Shepton Mallet, Somerset, he spent most of his life in the town. He married, had eight children, and played a prominent part in civic affairs. He continued in business but also took a keen interest in his garden, specializing at first in lilies. He also grew other plants, but in the late 1870s he turned his attention to Galanthus.
His life and work read like a veritable who’s who of the snowdrop world, both growers and snowdrops that were being introduced, selected, and grown at the time. It seems he was the first person to raise snowdrop seedlings, although he didn’t deliberately make crosses. What he did do was observe his plants in minute detail, noting the slightest differences, and over time building up huge knowledge and understanding of snowdrops. He corresponded and exchanged bulbs with everybody in the snowdrop world and was regarded as an authority on the subject.
He couldn’t resist growing and passing on anything that he thought unusual. Eventually, he named over 100 seedlings, which some suggested was far too many as they were very similar. In 1891 he wrote in the RHS Journal describing, ‘a race of seedling Snowdrops which I believe to be hybrids of G. elwesii and G. plicatus, as they seem to be intermediate between the two species. Most of these have large, handsome flowers of great substance and fine form, and the inner petals are generally entirely green.’ Perhaps one of those was ‘Merlin’.
Galanthus ‘Merlin’ is a large snowdrop with flowers about 35mm long but the strong, upright scapes, at about 24mm, hold the flowers well above the soil. The leaves reach just below the flowers at flowering time. The spathe is upright and stiff and remains so throughout flowering. The outer segments are very concave and thick with an unguiculate (narrow, stalklike) base. The overlapping inner segments each have a small sinus and a deep green mark extending to the base. It comprises an apical V joined to an oval so that the mark covers the whole segment, except the edge, and has a pronounced waist. The oval ovary has a definite constriction at its junction with the segments.
The stature, reliability, and history of Galanthus ‘Merlin’ make it a real legend.
And now to our oddball. When you see this strange flower, are you impressed or horrified? Or intrigued? I hope the latter because then you’ll be interested in the story.
James Atkins (1802-1884) was a nurseryman and skilled plantsman from Northampton who, after retirement, lived and gardened at Painswick in Gloucestershire. During the 1860s he acquired a snowdrop, which was presumed to have come from ‘somewhere in the Kingdom of Naples’, although there is some doubt about this and the true origin will probably never be known. He passed bulbs on to his friends and to Peter Barr, who sold them from his Tooting nursery. This was considered a very fine form of G. imperati, praised for its very shapely flowers. (G. imperati is now considered to be synonymous with G. nivalis.) At the RHS Snowdrop Conference in 1891 James Allen proposed the name ‘Atkinsii’ to avoid confusion with other stocks.
James Backhouse IV, of the large Backhouse nursery in York, distributed, from 1877 onwards, what he thought was a new snowdrop. But it turned out to be a clone of G. imperati, which subsequently also acquired the ‘Atkinsii’ name. However, the ‘Atkinsii of Backhouse’ was noted for its deformed flowers.
We now have two clones dating from the 1870s, one perfect, one deformed, and both called ‘Atkinsii’. So Bishop, Davis, and Grimshaw, in their book, Snowdrops, have renamed the aberrant one G. ‘James Backhouse’, to commemorate the distributor. They are both now thought to be hybrid cultivars.
So I now know that what I have is Galanthus ‘James Backhouse’. Whether or not I had it as that I cannot remember nor from where I acquired it. It seems to be identical to the description of G. ‘Atkinsii’ except for the deformed flowers. Sometimes one of the inner segments is as long as an outer or deformed in some other way, and often there is an extra segment growing from the base of the ovary, which is usually streaked with green. The outers can also be misshapen. This behaviour is not consistent across a clump or from year to year. But, as you can see from the photographs, this year the flowers are particularly demented. I have yet to find a perfect one. Why this happens I haven’t been able to find out. But, now I know a little of its history, I will look forward to seeing its degree of aberration from year to year. Will that be an indication of the year to come or the one just passed?
Galanthus ‘James Backhouse’. Yes, it’s an oddball but fascinating nevertheless.
Find some useful information
These are two fabulous books full of invaluable information.
Snowdrops, A Monograph of Cultivated Galanthus by Matt Bishop, Aaron Davis, and John Grimshaw.
The Galanthophiles by Jane Kilpatrick and Jennifer Harmer.
You never know where snowdrops will take you
My web wandering to find information about James Backhouse took me to some unusual places – the Backhouse Bank in Darlington, which eventually merged with others to form Barclays, botanizing in many locations, missionary work in Australia, Mauritius, and South Africa, the Backhouse Nursery in York, railways, and a link to William Hooker. You might like to wander along a similar path.
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