What is the fascination with snowdrops? For those of us who have this obsession, even if it’s only slight and doesn’t extend to a very large collection, I think it probably starts with a recognition of, and then delight in, the enormous variety that exists in this tiny white flower. This variability can also be found in the green parts of the plant – in some varieties, they can be yellow.
Let’s start with a bit of history
James Sanders is someone who played a part in the early days of snowdrop cultivation in the UK. He was born in Bedfordshire in 1832 and started his working life as a groom at Brampton Park House, where he first met his future wife, a maid at the house. He moved to London and found work as an office clerk.
After he and Margaret were married, he trained as a gardener and they then opened a florist and seed shop near Croydon. James was ambitious and moved on to own a nursery in Cambridge, and open a seed and flower shop. His advert in the local paper explained what his customers might find.
Seed and Flower Shop at 22, Trumpington Street,
(Near the hospital), which will be found replete with Hyacinths and other Bulbs, Dried Grasses, Immortelles, Hyacinth Glasses, etc.
His stock of large and choice Evergreen Shrubs, Flowering Plants, etc., at the nursery, is very fine.
October 6th, 1866.
I love visiting Cambridge and I have walked past what I now know was James Sanders Shop many times on my way to the Cambridge Botanic Garden. Next time I will stop and try to imagine what it would have looked like 150 years ago.
But what has this to do with snowdrops?
Well, he found a yellow snowdrop in Northumberland and thereby took his place in snowdrop history. We don’t know for sure when or why he was in Northumberland but can only assume he and Margaret were visiting her mother, who worked as housekeeper at Chillingham Castle or, perhaps, just visiting the area because it was her childhood home. All that is known is that he found it in a farmhouse garden near Belford, in Northumberland.
He grew it on and in 1877 sent bulbs to Henry Harpur-Crewe, a plant enthusiast and one of the first galanthophiles, who named it Galanthus nivalis var sandersii. Although yellow snowdrops are still most frequently found in Northumberland, variants of G. nivalis with yellow rather than green inner segment marks have been seen elsewhere.
Over time there has been confusion in the naming of different clones and Bishop, Davis and Grimshaw, in their book Snowdrops, have used Sandersii Group to describe all yellow-marked forms from Northumberland, and from elsewhere if they conform to the description. These Sandersii Group snowdrops have pale green leaves, yellowish scapes and ovaries, and yellow U or V inner segment marks. Some clones that are distinct enough to warrant naming are also included in the Group. G. n. Sandersii Group ‘Norfolk Blonde’, ‘Ray Cobb’, and ‘Savill Gold’ all come in this category. I haven’t grown any of these snowdrops but intend to keep an eye out for them in future.
Galanthus nivalis ‘Blonde Inge’
There are also some G. nivalis clones with yellow inner segment marks but with green ovaries, and these are not included in the Sandersii Group. One such is G. nivalis ‘Blonde Inge’.
I first saw ‘Blonde Inge’ on a cold, dull February day in a garden full of different galanthus. But it’s not ‘White Wings’ or ‘Sentinel’ or ‘Long John’ or the stunning ‘Pat Mason’ that I remember particularly – it’s this diminutive snowdrop. I could see the yellow from the inners shining through the closed outer segments making each bud look like a tiny light bulb. They positively shone in the gloom. And when mine opened I could see the source of the glow.
This was the first recorded snowdrop to have a yellow inner segment mark with a normally coloured green ovary. It was discovered in an old cemetery in Burscheid, north-east of Cologne, Germany and introduced to the UK in 1993. The name comes from an old German song, the title of which translates as, ‘When I will bring golden-haired Inge home.’ Some growers have found it vigorous and rapidly increasing, for others it has been more challenging. I will wait to see if ‘Blonde Inge’ has found a suitable home with me.
Galanthus plicatus gets a look-in
Galanthus plicatus grows wild in southern Russia, the Crimea, Romania, and in Northern Turkey and can be recognized by the distinctive folding of the leaves towards the underside. It has been in cultivation since the sixteenth century and is widely grown in gardens today with a vast array of different forms including some with yellow marks.
To follow the history of these yellow forms we must return to Cambridge and to the University Botanic Garden, where a yellow-flowered clone was known in the early 1900s. A watercolour by E. A. Bowles shows a plant with a bright yellow U on the inner segments, but it didn’t find its way into cultivation. Coincidentally, and there is no evidence of a connection, all modern G. plicatus cultivars originate at Wandlebury Ring, just two and a half miles from the Botanic Garden.
Wandlebury has over 2,000 years of human history. It has been an Iron Age hillfort, home to Romans, the stables of the famous Godolphin Arabian horse, and an 18th century country estate. It is now owned and managed by the Cambridge Preservation Society as a country park.
Yellow snowdrops add another layer to the Wandlebury history
In 1973 Bill Clark became Warden at Wandlebury Ring and it was he who first noticed one clump of snowdrops with yellow colouring amongst the colony of G. nivalis and G. plicatus growing there.
Just over a decade later, Esther Sharman also noticed this unusual plant when she was walking there and told her son, Joe, about it. Joe Sharman is an enthusiastic and knowledgeable plantsman, who now specializes in snowdrops. He grows and distributes hundreds of plants from Monksilver Nursery, near Cambridge. He pointed out the rarity of the yellow snowdrop and Bill Clark named it ‘Wendy’s Gold’ after his wife.
Most of the bulbs were then sold so that they could be twin-scaled and the numbers increased but they were all lost when botrytis killed the whole stock. Luckily, both Bill and Joe had kept a plant for themselves and given a bulb to the Cambridge Botanic Garden. These plants flourished and all the present stock is descended from them.
Galanthus plicatus ‘Wendy’s Gold’ is about 15cm tall. The scapes are very pale and the explicate leaves, splayed. The yellow ovary is narrow and the inner segments have a large yellow mark covering most of the segment.
Bill Clark then carried out some breeding by cross-pollinating ‘Wendy’s Gold’ with other seedlings from ‘Wendy’s Gold’. The first suitable clone that he produced he gave to Joe Sharman to scale up and sell. Joe named it ‘Bill Clark’. It is taller than ‘Wendy’s Gold’, with pale to mid-green foliage. The flowers are held well above the leaves and are nicely shaped, with outer segments that taper to a point at the apex. The inner segments have a round yellow mark with a small notch above the sinus.
Another plant was selected by Bill and this one he named ‘Wandlebury Ring’. Again it is taller than ‘Wendy’s Gold’ and the inner segment mark is an oval with a small notch above the sinus.
I’ve enjoyed growing ‘Wendy’s Gold’ since a friend gave me some plants a few years ago. They have grown well and bulked up into a good clump. I will treasure it even more now I know about its history and will look for the other two to complete the set.
Another thread to add to the yellow snowdrop weave
Galanthus elwesii was named after Henry John Elwes, a naturalist, traveller, botanist, and gardener who lived from 1846 to 1922. He succeeded to the family seat at Colesbourne Park in Gloucestershire in 1891 and amassed a large collection of bulbous plants, including snowdrops, and built an important arboretum. After his death, the garden was neglected but the present incumbents, Henry and Carolyn Elwes, have brought it back to life and developed the snowdrop collection. It is now considered one of the best snowdrop gardens in the country.
How fitting, therefore, that the first G. elwesii yellow should be found at Colesbourne. It was first noticed in a patch of yellowish snowdrops in 1983 and given the name Galanthus elwesii ‘Carolyn Elwes’. The yellow mark on the inner segments is an apical V shape connected to a wedge shape extending to the base. The yellow colour also appears in the ovary and the upper parts of the scape, spathe and leaf tips, and sometimes near the apex of the outer segments.
Now let’s mix it up a bit
In a garden full of various snowdrop species and cultivars there is the possibility of cross pollination and of hybrids being formed. Unless the cross has been carried out deliberately or careful note taken of possible parents it is often impossible to determine the parentage of a hybrid. Of the many hundreds of Galanthus hybrids available there are, of course, some yellow ones.
Primrose Warburg lived from 1920 to 1996 and is described as one of the great characters of the late twentieth century snowdrop-growing community. Her garden at South Hayes, near Oxford contained a vast collection of snowdrops. Soon after her death many of her friends met for a final lunch at South Hayes. They selected a hybrid, probably from G plicatus, with a yellow ovary and a clear yellow inner segment mark, which they decided would be named ‘Primrose Warburg’.
At the same time, in February 1997, another yellow hybrid was shown at the RHS Show in London and attracted a great deal of interest. It was found in Diana Aitchison’s garden, Spindlestone, in Belford, Northumberland. That rings a bell! Northumberland’s G. nivalis Sandersii Group, it is supposed, crossed with G. plicatus, producing this chance yellow seedling, which was named ‘Spindlestone Surprise’. It is slightly taller than ‘Primrose Warburg’ at about 20cm, with glaucescent leaves with narrowly explicative margins. The outer segments are substantial and the inners have yellow apical marks. The ovary is also yellow. As you can see the one bulb I started with has bulked up well in three years.
Is there gold at the end of the rainbow?
Here I have covered all I could find about yellow snowdrops from the early 1870s until the late 1990s. Since the turn of the century, interest in snowdrops has increased greatly and the number of snowdrop varieties available has mushroomed. Large colonies are being carefully examined for anything unusual and deliberate crosses are being carried out by both commercial enterprises and amateurs in their own gardens.
Yellows have become very popular so the search is on for something special, and there are already a lot on the market. Some of the snowdrops produced will just be shared amongst friends, some will be named and over time find a place in many collections, and a few might find fame and fortune beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. But, hopefully, some of them will have great stories to tell. I look forward to hearing them.
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.
Find out more about this fascinating place. History of Wandlebury | Cambridge Past, Present and Future
Close to Wandlebury Ring are the Gog Magog Hills, a range of low chalk hills. Often referred to locally as The Gogs, this is another area steeped in history, myth, and legend. Magog Trust
Find out more about this beautiful garden and its snowdrops. Snowdrops – Colesbourne Park
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