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Cornucopia - The Rector and His Giant Snowdrop

The Rector and His Giant Snowdrop
David and Anke Way

Mention the word Vicarage or Rectory in the presence of a galanthophile and immediately attention stiffens. This story describes the excitement of accidental discovery, attempts to determine origins, efforts to preserve and introduce a new cultivar to cultivation, and finally implant it in the minds and care of the community as a local heritage.

We started to become increasingly interested in snowdrops in 2000, something new for a new millennium. Because we had noticed one or two naturalised colonies of Galanthus nivalis in our village we started a project to explore the parish to discover how many such colonies there might be and the kind of habitats they enjoyed. Two sites were obvious alongside the principal road through the village, but they occupied habitats of startling contrast. One by the old water mill existed in a narrow strip of alder woodland at the edge of the mill pond where the soil water level was permanently very close to the soil surface - the site was so wet it was unsafe to walk in the wood. The other was high on a cliff face formed where the road cut through the south facing scarp of the Greensand Ridge to descend to the Low Weald below, exposing massive blocks of the local rock, Kentish Rag. This colony, perched high on the vertical cliff face, is also shaded by overhanging trees making it an extremely dry location.

This was a good start, what else would we find? Long term residents suggested a few other sites to explore, including a neglected area of private land once belonging to the Rectory. Our former village Rectory nestled in the shelter of the south facing lee of the Greensand Ridge, the ideal site for a garden. This had been the rectory site for many generations of Rectors, one of whom, recognising its favourable microclimate, had developed its garden potential by building, across the road from the house which lay within its own ornamental grounds, a walled garden for fruit and vegetables.

The neglected field lay behind the walled garden, sold off in the early fifties as a plot for a private home. We introduced ourselves to the current owner, whose interests were clearly equestrian rather than horticultural, and explained our mission. ”Snowdrops here? We are not sure, but you are welcome to go and look.” Look we did, and after finding an ancient oak door in the garden wall, squeezed through to see a sight we had never anticipated. Here indeed was another naturalised colony but it contained two intermingled species. One was G. nivalis, but towering above it was another giant form of snowdrop. What had we come across? Permission was granted to lift some bulbs for study in our own garden. Close examination showed it to be a form of G. elwesii. At maturity its broad arching leaves became an ornamental feature in their own right, and at up to 0.5m long exceeded the published maximum for the species. The flowers were not proportionally larger than average but as they were held on stout scapes above foliage height at flowering, provided an excellent display. Not surprisingly the bulbs were also very large and multiplied readily.

How could this notable plant have formed a naturalised colony in such an unusual location, was the question we kept asking ourselves. Before that could be answered another question had to be posed - which Rector was most horticulturally minded? The bare south facing garden wall contained an unexpected clue. Unobtrusively chisel-cut into the brickwork at spaced intervals were five cultivar names. Not the names of snowdrops, but the names of peaches, arranged in sequence of ripening, from early to late. Only someone really keen on gardening would have implemented such a plan.

The peaches were cultivars introduced in the late Victorian era, mostly from America. At this time the incumbency was held for over a quarter of a century by the Reverend John Hall. Like many clergymen of this period he probably had a strong interest in plants. Soon after the start of his incumbency, Henry Elwes of Colesbourne arranged, in 1874, the first commercial import of the newly discovered Turkish species of Galanthus, named elwesii a year later to commemorate its finder. They would, of course, have come from the wild. This triggered an annual trade in wild-collected bulbs. This species is notably variable and it seems credible that the Rector’s giant snowdrop is a ‘relic’ of these early imports.

But how did this ‘relic’ become a naturalised colony in such an unusual position? Sadly no snowdrops grow in today’s rectory garden. Sold off over sixty years ago, successive private owners have converted its former structure to frequently mown all-over grass, sure death to any snowdrop. However, every sizable garden needs a ‘service area’ - where better to tip garden rubbish out of sight than behind the garden wall? The mounded area close to the door in the wall gave the appearance of being a long term dumping site, countless Victorian barrow loads of garden rubbish were probably emptied here decade after decade, and not every plant in every wheelbarrow would have been a weed!

As stocks increased in our own garden we not only started to distribute it to snowdrop gardeners, but reintroduced it to the local village community as a heritage plant of local significance. We achieved this by adding it to the already long-established areas of G. nivalis and G. nivalis 'Flore Pleno' in the churchyard of our parish church, St Mary’s, Hunton. Here the Reverend John Hall would have walked thousands of times during the course of his long incumbency - it is also where he is buried.

In recognition of its foliage size and quality we named it G. 'Hunton Giant'. It is available from several specialist snowdrop suppliers.

First published in the Galanthus Group Newsletter October 2014
and subsequently in Cornucopia Issue 35.
© Copyright for this article: David and Anke Way

This article was taken from a copy of Cornucopia that was published in 2015. You could be reading these articles as they are published to a national audience, by subscribing to Cornucopia.


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