Snowdrop mania – a brief history

This is a brief summary of a very detailed talk given by Jennifer Harmer at the Shepton Mallet History Society on Thursday 11th December 2014

Jennifer Harmer has compiled a database of gardeners who in their day were galanthophiles. In the 19th century there was a huge mania for snowdrops just as there is today. She is co writing a book on the stories of the galanthophiles with Jane Kilpatrick whose latest book, The Fathers of Botany, has recently been published by The Royal Botanic Garden Kew.

The snowdrop is not indigenous to the UK and no one is sure when or how it came here, there is some speculation that the Romans brought them but this is not proved. Galanthus plicatus being amongst the first new species to arrive in the early 19thcentury.

The Galanthus nivalis, the common snowdrop which is often found naturalised in churchyards has religious significance due to it being white and flowering at Candlemas.

The 19th century galanthophiles either collected, bred and / or selected snowdrops. The good cultivars of snowdrops could not be bought, they were swapped or given amongst each other.

In chronological order:

James Atkins (1804–1884) a nurseryman, who had a brief partnership with John Jeyes (a chemist who invented Jeyes Fluid), collected many plants but the snowdrop for which he is remembered for is Galanthus ‘Atkensii’.

Peter Barr (1826-1909) was interested in species rather than the specialist cultivars and his G. ‘Atkinesii’ stock did not survive.

George Wheeler (1791-1878), however, was the only commercial nurseryman to buy stock of G. ‘Atkensii’ from Barr and his plants thrived.

Reverend Harpur Crewe (1828–1883) is considered to be the one of the earliest galanthophile writers.

James Sanders
 found the first yellow snowdrop Galanthus nivalis Sandsersii Group growing in Northumberland. Last year one bulb of a yellow snowdrop fetched over £700.

James Allen (1832–1906) was a very influential snowdrop breeder writing in the Gardeners Chronicle for many years on a variety of plants and was one of three who presented a paper at the Snowdrop Conference in 1891. He is most notable for introducing Galanthus ‘Magnet’, Galanthus ‘Robin Hood’ (fetching today about £8 bulb) but not a very strong growing
variety), Galanthus ‘Merlin’ and Galanthus ‘Galatea’ (similar to  Magnet). There is also a Galanthus ‘Allenii’.

Henry Elwes (1845-1922) after whom Galanthus elwesii is named (easy to identify for its lovely wide leaf and glaucous foliage colour).

John Gilbert Baker (1834 – 1920) was very important in his time working at Kew verifying new species of snowdrop.

Frederick Burbidge (1847-1905) was a collector rather than a breeder of snowdrops but he had huge knowledge of their history and was one of the three who presented a paper at the 1891 Snowdrop conference.

David Melville (1870–1924) introduced Galanthus nivalis ‘Melvileii’ which James Allen used as a seed parent in his breeding programmes. David was one of the three who presented a paper at the 1891 Snowdrop conference and therefore very influential.

Maximilian Leichtlin (1831-1910) had a botanical garden in Baden Baden in Germany was a friend of James Allen swapping both information and bulbs.

Theodoros Orphanides was a Greek poet and botanist who found and introduced Galanthus reginae olgae which flowers in the autumn.

A E Bowles (1865–1954) renowned horticulturist and important in the world of snowdrops. He was friends with both the Victorian galanthophiles and later gardeners such as Amy Doncaster, therefore acting as a link between James Allen and the younger generation of galanthophiles.

Amy Doncaster was a one of the best of the 20th century plantswomen and a link ensuring the survival of snowdrop into the mid 20th century. She created a large woodland garden in the Chandlers Ford and lived to over 100 years old. She is known for many snowdrops including Galanthus ‘Doncaster’s Double Charmer’ which she thought to be derived from one of James Allen’s although modern galanthophiles believe it is not the true Allen plant.

Samuel Arnott (1852-1930) bred in the 1920′s Galanthus ‘S Arnott’, an excellent snowdrop with some scent (but no James Allen connection!).

Winifrede Mathias and her galanthophile gardener (Herbert Ransom) were responsible for introducing snowdrops to a much wider range of people through their nursery The Giant Snowdrop Company during the 1950′sand 60′s. Up until then snowdrops had nearly always been swapped or given away amongst collectors.

Ruby Baker – a great modern galanthophile historian who has recently died and will be a great loss to the snowdrop world.

James Allen (1832–1906)

Born at Windsor Hill Mill (family milled corn for bread and animal feed) just outside Shepton Mallet where he lived until the 1850′s helping his mother and brother John run the mill. During the bread riots of 1842 the mill came under attack, but John, then aged 18 persuaded the rioters to leave on the written promise that if they returned in the morning they would give flour to those who came from of Shepton Mallet. After the death of their mother the 3 brothers, John, James and Joseph moved into Shepton Mallet. They purchased Old Mill in Park Road, John lived in Highfield House next door and James was opposite at Park House. James moved into Highfield House in the 1890’s after John’s death.
Botrytis eventually destroyed his snowdrop collection but in an effort to save his plants he sent some to Henry Ewbank (1828-1906) on the Isle of Wight however there is no evidence that the bulbs survived and therefore (the Botrytis probably went with the bulbs).He suffered ill health from the 1880′s, dying in 1906. He is burred justoutside the chapel at Shepton Mallet cemetery with his family. A tall ornate stone obelisk formed part of his grave stone however it was dismantled by Mendip Council in 2002 on the grounds that it was not safe. James Allen’s correspondence is held at the RHS.

James Allen also bred Anemone nemorosa ‘Allenii’ (and there reports that blue anemones still grow at Highfield house however they need to be formally ifentified) and Chionoscilla allenii which is also commercially available.