Enter the wide, wonderful world of winter snowdrops.
The exquisite beauty and variety of show-quality daffodils is evident to the casual observer, but the traits that distinguish one snowdrop from another are harder to understand. So is the passion for them, which can induce some fanciers to part with hundreds of dollars for a single, plain-looking bulb.
One of the challenges for those not visited by the mania is the simple act of appreciating them. Snowdrops appear in the depths of winter as improbably dainty flowers -- that is their charm -- but this makes them hard to enjoy. The first hurdle is the cold, which one feels after an hour or so in the garden. The second is the need to move close to the ground, which seems to get farther away with each passing year. The third obstacle is that in the chill, the snowdrop clams up, and you have to employ a skillful squeeze of the bloom -- called the snowdrop pinch -- to get the three outer petals to move aside to reveal the markings of the inner petals, which botanists call tepals or segments.
My snowdrop encounters took a new and pleasing turn the other day when I entered the barely heated greenhouse -- in the 30s at night, the low 50s during the day -- of snowdrop grower John Lonsdale.
Wafting through the moist air was the accumulated scent -- sweet but not cloying -- of dozens of snowdrop blossoms emerging from black plastic pots set on his waist-high growing benches. In the relative mildness, the outer petals extended like the wings of a gull to reveal the "inners." No cold, no bending, no pinching.
"This is a typically English cold greenhouse," said Lonsdale, wondering why more folks on this side of the pond don't have them. "You can play in them until your heart's content."
The greenhouse is one of three clustered on his sloping, 1 1/2-acre garden in Exton, in southeastern Pennsylvania, about 35 miles west of Philadelphia. Lonsdale, who moved from England in the mid-1990s, is a microbiologist turned nursery grower of high-class snowdrops and other specialty garden plants, namely cyclamen, trillium and herbaceous peonies. His spread and nursery are called Edgewood Gardens. To pay a visit, even in winter, is to feel the passion -- obsession, even -- that marks so many English gardeners as horticultural connoisseurs. For his own pleasure, Lonsdale, 59, raises collections of bog plants, pasque flowers, hellebores, cactuses, yuccas, epimediums, crocus and trout lilies. Some are fussy, and to make it harder, he grows most of everything from seed.
In his snowdrop house, he keeps "pretty much all" of the 20 or so recognized species of snowdrop, dozens of the choice varieties favored by fanciers and many hundreds of his own seedlings, most of which are not named.
In the garden, the most frequently seen snowdrops are the broad-leafed giant snowdrops of midwinter, whose floppy outer segments remind me of lop-eared rabbits, and the more slender common snowdrops of late winter. Snowdrops can live longer than trees in the right spot -- that is, in partial shade and humus-rich soil that drains. Last year's monsoon may have killed off old colonies. As with cyclamen, the seeds have a sugary coating. Ants haul them to their nests, aiding in the spread of old drifts.
It was this face of the snowdrop -- as the spreading, naturalized colony -- that I thought I preferred over the snowdrop as a pricey, pedigreed individual presented immaculately in its own pot, if you don't mind. But after spending some time in Lonsdale's greenhouse, I'm not so sure. Clear your head, look closely, and you may see that some varieties become as enchanting as a piece of finely crafted jewelry.
He points out Big Bertha, one of the largest of all snowdrops with broad, gray-green leaves, apple-green inner petals and a green blotch at the tip of the outer petals. The stem arches over at its tip, dangling the bloom like a lantern.
On another bench, he shows me a variety named Diggory, famous in snowdrop circles for its distinctive outer petals, cupped and puckered like seersucker.
Nearby is Ballerina, whose double green-and-white inners are clustered like a tiny succulent. Ronald Mackenzie is a rare yellow snowdrop -- the ovary and inner petals are a greenish yellow. The yellow ones are among the most coveted by fanciers, and it was such a variety -- called Carolyn Elwes -- that was stolen years ago from a renowned snowdrop garden in England. (The variety still sells for more than $300 a bulb.)
One of Lonsdale's unnamed seedlings resembles the related snowflake and is reminiscent of a named variety called E.A. Bowles, which you can find for sale in England for around $80. These crazy prices dominate any sort of discussion of novelty snowdrops, though it is worth pointing out that if you go to some of the plant sales in Western Europe, where the mania is the strongest, you can pick up delightful varieties for as little as $10 or so. Lonsdale's cheapest (Armine) is $15. His most expensive, a yellow-marked snowflake type originating in England with the presumably unintended cheeky name of Golden Fleece, is $450. But you shouldn't judge a snowdrop just by its bloom, he says. Look for its leaf shape, size and color. Long and tall stems raise the bloom above the garden floor.
Lonsdale propagates clones of coveted varieties by cutting bulbs from top to bottom in eight or more segments, much as you take apart an orange. He might make 32 bulbs from one but must wait three to four years before they flower.
But his real passion is in growing snowdrops from seeds. This produces many more plants, though they are more variable.
Some may be worth cloning as new varieties, but others simply add to the cultivated population of wild species and at the same time increase their genetic diversity. This is Lonsdale's preferred way of propagating.
"You can get numbers up very fast. I can sow 10,000 seeds in a year, easily," said Lonsdale, who sells potted plants and dormant bulbs from his website, edgewoodgardens.net, and at plant sales up and down the East Coast in late winter and spring.
Back in the snowdrop greenhouse, he shows me newly emerged seedlings, growing like grass in a 6-inch pot. Another pot sown a year earlier is thicker and fuller but another winter away from producing flowers. After decades as a gardener, he says, he never misses the rush of seeing his seedlings pushing up through the potting soil.
The flowering snowdrops are in 2 1/2-inch square pots. Some of the plants are marked with a yellow, green or red tag, or all three. This is a code for himself. Yellow means he has photographed it, green means he will propagate by bulb chipping and red means he is considering naming it.
The superiority of a triple-tagged specimen is evident now in a sea of potted snowdrops. "But in May," he said, "all I have is dirty dead leaves."