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Little drops of heaven are such a pretty sight

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Heralding the start of Spring: Drifts of elegant snowdrops pushing up through the dark leaf litter

Heralding the start of Spring: Drifts of elegant snowdrops pushing up through the dark leaf litter

Heralding the start of Spring: Drifts of elegant snowdrops pushing up through the dark leaf litter

The first snowdrops (a handsome variety called Galanthus 'Atkinsii') were flowering in our garden before New Year. There are two spreads of them. Both are planted against the same south-facing boundary hedge and both started with bulbs from a single clump that I brought with us from our old garden. But one spread is higher up the bank and comes out three weeks earlier than the other, which is no more than 10 metres lower down. I didn't expect that difference, when I first planted them, but it's useful, as I can expect a show from this one variety for at least seven weeks.

Another early snowdrop is now well-established even higher up the bank, in a much more open, sunny situation. This is G. elwesii, very distinctive, not just because it's early but because the leaves are a soft grey, rather than green and very broad. That clump started with a generous gift of a bulb from Carolyn Elwes at Colesbourne, and it's a beauty: tall, pure white flowers, an eye-catcher among snowdrops.

Then a neighbour, who had taken a fancy to the G. 'Atkinsii' in our garden, offered to swap a clump of her G. elwesii for a clump of our 'Atkinsii'. Her snowdrops flowered with us for the first time this season, as early as the G. elwesii I'd had from Carolyn Elwes and with the same wide grey leaves. But the flowers were quite different. The inner petals were plated all over with emerald green, rather than carrying the more usual small inverted green 'V' on white. The outer petals, usually plain white, were brushed very elegantly with green stripes. It's a beauty.

True galanthophiles won't find this as thrilling as I did. G. elwesii is known to play these kind of tricks and some of the green-marked variants have already been named 'Green Tip', 'Green Brush' and the like. Mine won't have a name. I'm just content to admire it.

But the snowdrop's ability to mutate is what drives the present galanthomania, and it shows no signs of slowing down. About 350 different kinds of snowdrop are listed in The Plant Finder and of course the rarest ones are never listed at all. More than 40 people bid on eBay for a single bulb of a yellow marked G. woronowii called 'Elizabeth Harrison'. It finally sold for £725.10. Those in the know think that a yellow variant of the pretty snowdrop called 'Trym' is likely to fetch even more. And eBay is becoming the sales table of choice, which is sad. It's a soulless way to dispose of plants.

I rate a snowdrop for its looks, not its rarity, and to me they are never more beautiful than when spread in vast drifts in old gardens such as Hodsock Priory (hodsockpriory.com) or Chippenham Park (chippenhamparkgardens.info). Both open regularly all through this month to show off their snowdrops and I've spent very happy days in both.

I particularly remember the gorgeous smell of woodsmoke hanging in the woods at Hodsock, one of the best smells in the world. Halfway round the circuit, the path brings you into an open glade where there was a huge bonfire, specially lit to keep visitors warm on winter visits. It was a brilliant touch.

The longer of the two circuits takes you to the end of the wood and brings you to a dell where thousands of snowdrops - mostly doubles - push up through the dark leaf litter. The Buchanans (owners of Hodsock) planted quarter of a million snowdrops to celebrate the Millenium and they are settled enough now to make a superb display.

Collectors, though, like to buy new treasures and rather surprisingly, the epicentre of snowdrop selling seems to have shifted to Shaftesbury in north Dorset. The ticket-only sale they had there earlier in the month was sold out before Christmas.

There was another last week, at the Guildhall, for which tickets were only released on the day. Try shaftesburysnowdrops.org or the Shaftesbury Tourist Information Centre for information.

The snowdrop festival went on until 19 February with competitions for snowdrop poetry and snowdrop paintings, snowdrop walks and talks.

Belfast Telegraph