I think I’m coming down with galanthomania. It’s a rare affliction, but one that’s hard to shake, and it’s affecting more people every year. Galanthus are snowdrops, and galanthomania is a 21st-century version of that 17th-century craze for tulips which began in the Dutch golden age. At the height of the tulip mania some bulbs were selling at 3,000 or 4,000 florins, almost ten times a craftsman’s annual wage. Snowdrop bulbs aren’t there yet, but collectors spend hundreds of pounds on some rare bulbs, and seed company Thompson and Morgan broke records in 2012 by paying £725 for a single specimen. This rare flower, Galanthus woronowii ‘Elizabeth Harrison’, has yellow ovaries and yellow markings on its white petals, and was a significant increase on the previous record of £360 for a variety called ‘Green Tear’.
This week G. plicatus ‘Bryan Hewitt’, a pure white cup-shaped snowdrop grown in the Netherlands, sold for £133 on eBay and, though I didn’t bid, I felt a pang of envy. The auction site lists dozens of other single bulbs at prices that could buy you a mature tree.
There’s some logic to spending so much. A skilled horticulturalist can take one bulb and turn it into many more plants. Other galanthophiles will pay dearly for rare bulbs, even though these are not the easiest plants to establish, and the demand means constant vigilance. At Sir Harold Hillier Gardens in Hampshire, the plants are locked in alarmed greenhouses when not in flower, and displayed under guard when in bloom.
What makes snowdrop mania particularly strange is that unlike tulips, the variations between snowdrops are tricky for a layman to spot. The only really remarkable mutation is one where the ovaries and small markings on the petals are bright yellow rather than green. Other than that, a rare snowdrop looks like a common one: it has green strap-like leaves and white petals that hang down from an arching stem. Why collect something you need to lie flat on your belly to appreciate, especially when it flowers in winter?
Well, once your eye is tuned to the differences, there are some lovely, distinctive snowdrops that even casual plantsmen can appreciate. I have long loved ‘Lady Elphinstone’, a double variety with lemon-yellow markings on its white petals. Turned upside-down, the centre of the flower is as ornate as a rose. Hanging from its stem, it looks like one of the tutus from Les Sylphides. It costs about £10 for a bulb the size of a 10p piece. Or else there’s ‘Grumpy’, a snowdrop with its own text-messaging emoticon of two little dots above a green U-shaped marking on the lip of the petals. Trudging past a clump on a miserable January morning, a cross commuter might notice that frowny little face, just millimetres high, staring back at them.
Before the acquisitive twitch starts, there’s something that draws a collector towards a certain plant. It’s not a rational calculation, the hope that one little bulb of a mutant yellow-marked flower could turn into a nice little earner, but more an emotional tug. Just as grown men spend thousands of pounds collecting model engines that remind them of being eight, so snowdrops have a nostalgic power. We remember them from our childhoods, when our mothers and grandparents pointed them out in parks.
For me, the snowdrop is the first true flower of the year. The earliest-flowering competitor, the winter aconite, is a pretty thing, a regimental version of a buttercup, but too brash a yellow to play on the heartstrings. Snowdrops give the impression they’d prefer you didn’t pay them too much attention. But in the late winter, those demure little white flowers are alone in a cold, muddy garden. They remind us, during dark days, that brighter things are to come.