Colesbourne Park

'England's Greatest Snowdrop Garden'

This section features plants that were favourites of H.J. Elwes (HJE) and are now grown here again, or are prominent at Colesbourne for some other reason.


Crocus was one of HJE’s specialities – he collected them in Turkey and elsewhere – and several were first illustrated in Curtis’s Botanical Magazine from his material. Few of his crocuses survive at Colesbourne, although there are some nice patches of C. tommasinianus in good rosy shades, and in autumn there are quite a lot of C. speciosus and C. pulchellus. These are ‘toughies’ – good garden plants that are not fussy about the conditions they grow in and we are encouraging their spread.

A sunny bank near the house is planted with a multi-coloured carpet of cultivars of
C. chrysanthus and C. sieberi. Both have special links; C. chrysanthus was first illustrated in the Botanical Magazine from plants supplied to Kew by H.J. Elwes, and to him is attributed the distribution of the gorgeous C. sieberi var. sublimis ‘Tricolor’ (left).


Some old tubers of Cyclamen hederifolium have persisted at Colesbourne for decades and are now magnificent in both flower and in leaf. They have been supplemented by extensive plantings of new plants, now themselves fully mature, giving a great show in autumn.

For late winter and early spring we have planted a lot of
Cyclamen coum which contrasts beautifully with snowdrops and really livens up the garden. Most of these also have nicely marked foliage, which adds detail to the scene. Many seedlings are now appearing, ensuring that the display will continue to improve each year.


Following the snowdrops, daffodils provide the next major floral display at Colesbourne Park. They are at their peak between late March and mid-April, but the first, such as Narcissus minor 'Navarre' appear in February with the snowdrops, and the last, the Pheasant's Eye, N. poeticus 'Recurvus', fade away in late May.

The main display is provided by masses of old-fashioned cultivars naturalized in the grass. These old-timers have a lot of charm and are much more suited to the wild garden setting than the majority of more recent, larger daffodils, especially the distinctly charmless ones available from garden centres. Unfortunately, we have not yet been able to accurately identify the cultivars of our plants here, but this a project we shall work on in future years.

On the lake bank and elsewhere are masses of wild daffodils, Narcissus pseudonarcissus, the Lent Lily. This is an English native species, and the county flower of Gloucestershire. It spreads gently by seed, which we encourage, but this is a slow process as it can take up to 5 years for a seedling to flower. To create a daffodil meadow around the young trees in the New Pinetum we planted a close look-alike for the wild daffodil, the horticultural selection 'Topolino'. This has the advantage of being a reliable flowerer, and soon becomes established, unlike the true N. pseudonarcissus, with which it shares the same whitish perianth segments (petals) and yellow trumpet. With it we have planted the similarly coloured 'Little Beauty'. Grading into these are the pure yellow daffodils Narcissus obvallaris, the Tenby daffodil from Wales, and the smaller N. pumilus and 'Midget'. They create a very pretty sight in March. In the Spring Garden is a collection of choice daffodils, both ancient and modern. Among them is the elegant double, N. 'Eystettensis', first recorded in the early 17th Century, with overlapping perianth segments forming a neat star. At the other end of the spectrum are the modern daffodils, showing the latest refinements of the breeder's art in shape and quality of the blooms, as well as in the colour range. Many people claim not to like pink daffodils, but they are a striking and often very beautiful addition to the range. Above is shown Narcissus 'Emperor'.


Bowles recorded: ‘Fritillarias of many kinds grew better at Colesbourne than elsewhere’ and that crown imperials (F. imperialis) were a particular feature of the herbaceous border. Several clones now grow here again. By the lakeside we have planted the native Fritillaria meleagris, and on the Ice House bank, the pure white form. In his unpublished memoir on Horticulture, HJE relates that he had a vase of white fritillaries on the table when Miss Marianne North, the remarkable flower painter, came to lunch. Afterwards she went out into the meadows and dug a lot up! Our stock came from Holland

On his 1874 journey in Turkey H.J. Elwes collected numerous bulbous plants as well as
Galanthus elwesii: among them was the tall green and black Fritillaria elwesii (right). It is not difficult to grow, but remains an unusual sight in England.


Hellebores (members of the genus Helleborus) are among the most popular of winter-flowering plants, complementing the snowdrops and other spring bulbs.. With their range of colour shape and form it is easy to understand why this should be so. We gathered together an extensive collection of different species and hybrids at Colesbourne and built up a lovely display of them in the Spring Garden, with other plantings in the wood and by the lake. The majority of these are representatives of the popular Helleborus xhybridus, the Lenten Roses (formerly often called H. orientalis). With flowers in all shades from white to almost black, green and yellow to pink and purple, spotted or unspotted, single or double, they are unrivalled in their appeal.Unfortunately the massed plantings in the Spring Garden have been devastated by the disease known as Hellebore Black Death, a virus transmitted by aphids between plants. The symptoms are a bronzy-brown discoloration on mature leaves, while the next flush of foliage and flowers is severely blackened and distorted (right). There is no cure, so we have destroyed all plants showing symptoms and continue to do so. Meanwhile, we are raising seedlings under cover and will plant these out when the disease is under control.


The snowflakes, genus Leucojum, are the closest relatives of snowdrops and are very similar in many ways. They differ, however in having six equal corolla segments, with green tips on each; snowdrops have the well-known 3 x 3 arrangement, in which the inner segments form a tube and are marked, while the outer segments are larger and (usually) plain. There are other points of distinction, one being that the leaves are always green and never show the grey colouration of most snowdrops.

There are large patches of the Spring Snowflake, L. vernum (left), near the Ice House and in the wood. These grow in much drier conditions than is normally thought suitable for the species, but the colonies continues to thrive and expand. It flowers in February and March, each stem bearing only one or two large, lantern-like flowers. The Summer Snowflake, L. aestivum, is a much larger plant, with 5-7 smaller flowers per flowering stem. It flowers during April and May. Representative selections of both species from the National Collection of the late Richard Nutt have been planted in damp turf by the lake.


H.J. Elwes took up gardening after his marriage in 1871; by 1877 he was the author of one of the most sumptuous of botanical books; A Monograph of the Genus Lilium. He wrote it because he could not find the information he wanted in a single source, and as he said: ‘the book is not the work of a scientific botanist, but is merely the result of a few years’ horticultural study, during which I have endeavoured to bring together all the information which seemed likely to elucidate as far as possible some of the difficult questions which are met with in the study of these plants.’ The botanical descriptions were written by J.G. Baker of Kew, and the folio plates are by Walter Hood Fitch, one of the greatest botanical artists of all time. The original folios appeared between 1877 and 1880; a further nine supplements were issued after his death.

Remarkably, two species of lilies have persisted at Colesbourne since HJE’s death. These are the Turk’s-cap
Lilium martagon, in white, pink and wine-red, and the beautiful yellow L. monadelphum from the Caucasus, seen here in Fitch's painting. Other species and hybrids have been added to the collection in recent years, experimenting to see which will survive in these conditions.


One of the plants we get asked about most frequently is the patch of Petasites japonicus (Japanese butterbur) on the bank opposite the Ice House. The flowering heads look rather like a cauliflower sitting on the ground and if they avoid frost are pure white; frost damage causes blackening in their centres. Following flowering huge leaves appear, which smother anything close by. As the plant produces vigorous underground rhizomes it is only suitable for large gardens!

Wild Flowers

The wild garden at Colesbourne is maintained with minimum intervention, except for mowing at appropriate times. This has meant that there are lots of attractive wild flowers in the grassed areas and below the trees. Particularly attractive are masses of primroses (Primula vulgaris) on the terrace banks above the lower lawn, wood anemones (Anemone nemorosa, right) on the lake bank and bluebells (Hyacinthoides non-scriptus) in the wood. The curious Herb Paris Paris quadrifolia) grows in the Ring Meadow, while the green hellebore Helleborus occidentalis is found in the woods. Three species of wild orchid have been found in the garden.

Mammals and Birds

We are fortunate to have a diverse selection of birds here. The lake, Hilcot Brook and River Churn form an important wetland habitat that is home to kingfishers, dippers, dabchick, grey wagtails, mandarin ducks and many other species. The older trees support nuthatches, treecreepers and great spotted woodpeckers, while green woodpeckers use both trees and grassy areas where they search for ants. Buzzards and ravens are a common sight overhead, and red kites and peregrine falcons are seen occasionally.

Slightly less welcome are some of the mammals, which can do a lot of damage in the garden. There are three species of deer in the woods: fallow, roe and muntjac, and all come into the garden! Only roe is native; the other two are aliens that cause enormous damage to woodlands, as does the grey squirrel. Badgers are common around Colesbourne and are occasionally seen in the garden. They rootle for worms in damp turf and can make a surprising mess of the lawns.