Behind the iconic snowdrop lies an intriguing story of whimsical characters. (2023)

It's the darkness of wintersnowdrops appearthat warm hearts and evoke an annual flood of love. While familiar, they're too captivating and eclectic to ever get boring, and now it seems like there are even more stories to tell.

There is a rich social history behind the iconic plant, stretching from about 1854 to the present, and that is at the heart of The Galanthophiles: 160 Years of Snowdrop Devotees, a new book by Jane Kilpatrick and Jennifer Harmer (see listing at end ).

Snowdrop lovers have a reputation for being quirky, headstrong, demanding, and argumentative on the one hand, but also loyal, dedicated, and generous on the other. Through meticulous detective work, Kilpatrick and Harmer have unearthed a wealth of new material and opened up a new perspective on bluebells and society; We break myths and reveal secrets.

The book, conceived in 2005, has been a long time coming. "The more I searched, the more information I found and the more intrigued I became," says Harmer, a historian at the Hardy Plant Society. Together with author and fellow historian Kilpatrick, they formed an author research team and searched archives and libraries. Connect with family members, discover never-before-seen images, and learn about the central figures in the carillon tradition.

Kilpatrick explains, "People get distracted by big names like Capability Brown and E A Bowles, partly because information is easy to find, but there aren't that many stories about normal people."

And Galanthophiles is a picture book. The story of "dry old Quaker" James Atkins, who left his canary to his sister in his will, evokes the vision of the frail old man at the window, with only a bird for company. Then there's the mystery of what James Sanders, discoverer of the yellow-marked snowdrops in Northumberland, was doing there in the first place: an odd place for a busy Cambridgeshire planter in the 1870s. She was a key manager at Chillingham Hall, so she probably had a lot of fun visiting relatives," reveals Harmer.

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There are paintings and drawings of plants: bluebell lovers and gardeners are also not insignificant artists. Archival images reveal a glimpse of her personality and allow us to step into her world and see things through her eyes.

Legendary breeder Philip Ballard is portrayed as a boy on a farm machine pulled by heavy horses, and again as an old man drinking a pint of his own cider. "He showed David Bromley, a collector from Shrewsbury, his collection of bells on his slippers, he was too excited to bother with the shoes," says Kilpatrick.

A painting by E A Bowles provided a revelation: “We realized the artist was John Gray, who was also famous for his bluebells,” says Harmer. This thread continued with the discovery of two sketches by John Gray himself, depicting power and spark in a cartoonish manner. According to a contemporary description of the man, "He had a very striking appearance, being of gigantic stature and sporting a patriarchal beard." That's why his name is suddenly full of character. Then there was Alice Bickham, who amassed one of the finest collections in the country; He established a network of contacts, sending letters and lightbulbs to Bowles and pestering him with questions. Her requests were energetic, often underlined, and she was also a gifted botanical artist.

"We found these beautiful drawings in the Lindley Library, about 150 of them," says Harmer. "It seems that after the death of his mother he had problems with his brothers and left home, taking with him many valuable paintings, which he hung in pairs on the wall of his hut because they did not match."

Kilpatrick agrees: “She was just something different. She did what she wanted, driving hundreds of miles alone in her little car in her 20's... quite an adventure at the time."

In many ways, Bickham embodies the gallant, loving women who, no matter how smart or feisty, are out of sight. "We tend to have a Jane Austen view of marrying women," says Harmer, "but there were a number of daughters of wealthy industrialists who didn't feel that kind of compulsion." Why get married and take the risk of having a child get when you have all the money, status and freedom you could ever want? Miss Helen Russell of Ashiestiel, Miss Jane Cathcart of Auchendrane and the picturesque Miss Bickham agreed.

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History tends to portray these women as amateurs or groupies, distant satellites of Bowles and his influential hit. In reality, however, they were often gifted gardeners with a flair for a new crop, and one can imagine their frustration when they submitted new discoveries to the 'Boffin du Jour' only to find them merely sufficient.

Another leitmotif of galantófilos is personal pain; poignant memories of a time of higher mortality rates and less advanced medicine; Daughters and mothers who die young, sons lost in war, friends who grow old and fade away. Walking in their shoes, it is impossible not to feel and empathize with their pain and pain when turning to plants for comfort and distraction.

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"It was a time of extraordinary social change, there were two devastating world wars that tore apart the society most of these people knew, so it was only natural that they would seek solace in their gardens," says Kilpatrick. “A calm, hopeful and orderly world. There's control, you're in charge and it's a safe place.”

However, as an antidote to an often lonely life, bluebells have long been a go-to among gardeners. A source for discussion, an opportunity to build a collection, a nice comparison of notes and the sharing of information. Although snowdrops represented a niche in the post-war period, they gradually enjoyed great popularity again. In 2001 they were further strengthened with the publication of Snowdrops: A Monograph of Cultivated Galanthus by Bishop, Davis and Grimshaw. Visiting gardens and socializing about new strains is a must these days, but connections to early gallantophiles remain.

Shepton Mallet in Somerset is both the birthplace of Victorian gallantophile prodigy James Allen and home to a new snowdrop festival ( Energetic and socially involved, Allen was the first person to consciously preserve and germinate snowdrop seeds, and wrote a major paper for the 1891 Snowdrop Conference. Unfortunately, most of his cultivars were lost to disease, but three, "Robin Hood" and 'Magnet' and 'Merlin' survived.

"Galantophilia is at an exceptional level in Britain and it was crazy the city didn't take advantage of it," says Dominic Weston, one of the festival's organisers. "When we first moved here we read about James Allen, the 'Snowdrop King', but there was very little local knowledge. We thought it was great; remarkable work by a remarkable man, but uncelebrated.”

The garden of the Allen family home now lies under a car park, while the beautiful stone obelisk on his grave was deemed unsafe and removed. But now the tide is turning. In 2013 a new Snowdrop project started to give Shepton Mallet something to be proud of and started planting 300,000 flower bulbs around the town. At the first Snowdrop Festival in 2017, shops sponsored planters along Main Street, window displays and a program of events including poetry and art competitions. "It's a determined money laundering campaign, in a good way," says Weston.

“The aim of the festival is to give people back their own history; "Bring the legend James Allen to life," he says. “The best thing is that now everyone wants to grow them, they do it themselves.” There is increased awareness, especially in elementary schools. We want it to be a long-term project and if we succeed in involving young people again, then that is the future.”

They honor the legacy of the galantophiles of yesteryear and are busy creating a new floral-centric tradition, a movement that not only inspires the local community but also attracts interest and competition from countries as far away as Canada, Africa and Australia pulls. To Weston, this is a testament to the snowdrop's persistence.

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"It goes down well with people, even if they don't breed snowdrops," he says. "We hear a lot of poetry about people who are lost or who, because snowdrops contain an active ingredient used in medicine to combat dementia, miss something." . It's a little melancholy, but it's a welcome melancholy , which speaks of hope in bleak times. Kilpatrick agrees. "It's something to hold on to. When all else dies, the bluebells come alive.

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But what would the prolific, idiosyncratic, and unassuming James Allen have made of it? Weston laughs. “He loved people showing interest in his plants and was very civic. I think it would be strange for him to celebrate as a person, but he would be proud of the community involvement."


The Galanthophiles: 160 Years of Snowdrop Devotees by Jane Kilpatrick and Jennifer Harmer (Orphans Publishing, £45). Buy it now for £35 call 0844871 1514.


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