Colesbourne Park

'England's Greatest Snowdrop Garden'

The snowdrop collection at Colesbourne Park originated in the plantings made by Henry John Elwes (1846-1922). In 1874 he had discovered Galanthus elwesii while travelling in western Turkey and he became one of the prominent galanthophiles of his day. It is clear that he planted widely, as the garden today contains large populations of snowdrops, many of them hybrids, descended from those plantings. The present day collection, and the magnificent swathes of cultivars such as 'S. Arnott' and G.plicatus  'Colossus' are the result of the renewed interest of Carolyn and Henry Elwes, who have devoted much time to replanting and expanding the groups. In recent years this has been carried on by John Grimshaw and Will Fletcher, who plant out thousands of snowdrops each year. New varieties are added each year, with the collection now totalling some 250 cultivars, though not all are on display. Colesbourne Park is renowned as one of the best places to see large groups of choice snowdrops. According to Country Life (1999) it is 'England's greatest snowdrop garden.'

Colesbourne is associated with several snowdrop cultivars. Unfortunately, the clone called 'Colesborne'  does not prosper here!

The patch of Galanthus 'S.Arnott' at Colesbourne (right) is one of the sights of the snowdrop world, and to walk past on a warm day is a delight; all the flowers are wide open and releasing their fragrance. The original bulbs were sent to H.J. Elwes by the Scottish gardener Samuel Arnott, who raised several hybrid snowdrops.Elwes called it 'Arnott's Seedling', but the name was amended to the ‘more suitable’ G. 'S.Arnott' by E.A. Bowles in 1951. The Colesbourne stock is derived from a clump discovered under a bramble bush by Carolyn Elwes in about 1985. The identification was verified by the late Richard Nutt. Regular division and replanting of the clumps has led to the current magnificent sight and the various other plantings of ‘S. Arnott’ to be seen around the garden..Another large snowdrop to be seen in big drifts throughout the garden is ‘James Backhouse’, a member of the Atkinsii Group with a proportion of deformed flowers that add interest but do not detract from its excellence in the garden. It originated in the Backhouse nurseries in York in 1875. The wonderfully vigorous double snowdrops raised by H.A. Greatorex are also very successful here, with large patches of ‘Ophelia’ and ‘Hippolyta’ (below) in the wood.

Several fine cultivars have been selected from among the seedling populations in the garden. Most surprising is G. elwesii 'Carolyn Elwes' (bottom left), accounted the first yellow G. elwesii. The inner segment markings, and often the tips of the leaves and spathes as well, are a soft limy-yellow. Its desirability was highlighted when, following the first Colesbourne snowdrop open days in 1997, the original large clump was stolen from the grounds. The theft was widely publicized, but no trace of the bulbs has ever been found, perhaps because the cultivar is too distinctive to be easily 'laundered'.

Members of the Elwes family are recognized in other clones. Galanthus 'Lord Lieutenant' (below left) is a hybrid whose flowers are held almost horizontally instead of drooping in the normal posture. The name commemorates Henry Elwes' position as Lord-Lieutenant for Gloucestershire, and is appropriate also in the formal bearing of the plant. Found entangled at the base of a lime tree, Galanthus 'George Elwes' (right) is a handsome hybrid between G. plicatus and G. elwesii and is accounted one of the best progeny from this parentage. The large flowers have a green inner segment. It is named for the late son of Carolyn and Henry Elwes.

A very early-blooming snowdrop is G. plicatus 'Colossus', which has often finished flowering by the time of the open days. It has huge leaves that are ornamental in their own right. It was found at Colesbourne as a vigorous clump, and has since been divided into the large areas seen today.

The collection has been built up over the years through purchases, gifts and exchanges with other collectors. In the early days snowdrops came from friends such as Herbert Ransom, who grew snowdrops for the Giant Snowdrop Company, and galanthophiles such as Ruth Birchall, Primrose Warburg and Richard Nutt. We now swap bulbs with enthusiasts throughout the United Kingdom and Europe, ensuring that the collection remains vibrant and up-to-date. Rarer snowdrops may be found in the Spring Garden and in beds close to the house, where their differences can be compared more carefully. Our aim is to multiply all our snowdrops that prove worthy and to continually expand the plantings.

Growing snowdrops at Colesbourne

Our snowdrops are only ever moved as dormant bulbs. We find this to be extremely successful, enabling rapid establishment with no loss of vigour or flowering in the folowing season, and it’s much easier to plant dormant bulbs. Division while in growth inevitably damages the roots and although the plant usually survives, it is often set back by going dormant too soon without making up a full bulb for the following season. If planting snowdrops ‘in the green’ ensure that they are well watered while in growth to compensate for this root damage.

Our sales snowdrops are grown from bulbs lifted in summer and potted while dormant in early autumn. This ensures that they reach your garden with a full and healthy set of roots, and will grow away without any check.

Further information may be found in Snowdrops by Matt Bishop, Aaron Davis and John Grimshaw, published by The Griffin Press (ISBN 0 9541916 0 9). For more information about the book click here.