THE WHITE FANTASTIC; Wonderful winter blooms are all the more rewarding for their rarity, with snowdrops a favourite to fill us with hope for the year ahead. The lovely white bells are a delight on their own but with clever planting can shine even brighter.
Gardening writers are spoiled for choice in midsummer over what to talk about.
Come to think of it, gardeners themselves have such a plethora of flowers, bulbs, shrubs and trees at the zenith of their performance, they sometimes feel a bit bedazzled.
The fact there are fewer flowers around in the winter does not mean they are any the less beloved. In fact, their rarity makes them all the more precious and endearing.
The nation's favourite flower is the rose but if, in the bleak days of winter, you asked gardeners which flower filled them with hope, the snowdrop would win hands down.
Nothing else can lift the spirits as surely as the vision of a bank of snowdrops, whether they are growing wild or carefully cultivated in a garden. The best way to see them is in huge drifts carpeting a woodland floor. Few of us can emulate this picture because of our limited space.
Our gardens need to look good throughout the year and we cannot afford to devote a large area to any one plant or one season in particular. Achieving a succession of plants is one of the most difficult horticultural tasks any of us faces.
But it is just because it is so challenging that it provides a dose of garden adrenalin. It spurs us into action, armed with ideas and schemes.
Who would be without the immaculate white bells of snowdrops? Everyone needs a few to gladden the heart on a cold winter morning and introduce the notion that spring will arrive.
But when we can only accommodate a clump or two, what do we grow with them to make the most impact in the February garden?
At other times of the year, especially in summer, plant combinations are endless but during winter they are much more limited.
Evergreen spurges, especially those of short stature, make great companions. Euphorbia amygdaloides var. robbiae has wanderlust, never staying in one place but this suits the snowdrop Galanthus nivalis, which often makes small colonies, seeding itself and spontaneously producing new bulbs. When snowdrops are at their peak, the stems of spurge are short, hugging the ground, but when the euphorbia shoots upwards, it hides the dying flowers and foliage of snowdrops.
One of the best spurges, which will thrive happily in shade, is euphorbia martinii, a hybrid between euphorbia amygdaloides, our native wood spurge, and the glaucous Mediterranean euphorbia characias or wulfenii.
Each has a dapper look and there is a tinge of crimson to the foliage, matched by the crimson eyes of the tiny flowers held within vivid lime–green bracts.
The flowers are not yet out as snowdrops come into bloom but the crooks of the flowering stems are starting to straighten.
In a shady setting, galanthus nivalis looks well with this spurge or in a sunnier spot, it could be partnered by one of the elwesii cultivars.
This snowdrop has broad, glaucous leaves quite unlike the snowdrops we know so well.
Here at Glebe Cottage, they have been in flower since November but it will last through February. It is most successful in sunny, well–drained situations. This is the best venue too for othonna cheirifolia, a strange member of the daisy family.
It is mainly grown for its foliage – dense mats of grey–green formed by overlapping, thickly textured, paddle–shaped leaves, contrasting well with the snowdrops. There is the added attraction of big yellow daisies in midwinter too.
All yellow flowers brighten these dark days. One that makes a classic companion for snowdrops is the winter aconite, eranthis hyemalis.
A bulbous member of the buttercup family, its little green buds push up through the leaf litter, expanding into green ruffs, each one surrounding a bright yellow flower.
When it is happy, it self–seeds and, in common with snowdrops, can form extensive colonies.
Try it with galanthus atkinsii – sometimes it arrives before Christmas but, whenever it decides to make its appearance, its large white flowers are always appreciated. It is one of the most graceful snowdrops, its tall stems bearing substantial flowers. An elegant start to an exciting new year.
'THE BEST WAY TO SEE SNOWDROPS IS IN HUGE DRIFTS, CARPETING A WOODLAND FLOOR' 'EVERYONE NEEDS A FEW SNOWDROPS TO GLADDEN THE HEART IN WINTER'
WANDERLUST Euphorbia likes to spread
CRAZY DAISY Othonna cheirifolia
SET THE SEED Galanthus nivalis often grows in small colonies