Galanthophilia

3D front cover of Flowers of the Field by Charles Alexander JohnsIt’s a bit early yet, but you can be sure that all over the United Kingdom, avid galanthophiles will have already made their bookings, got out their reference books, polished their magnifying glasses, and clipped the biggest zoom lenses imaginable to their cameras. Meanwhile, at Colesbourne, Anglesey Abbey, Benington Lordship and the other destinations for these eager pilgrims, the proprietors will be bracing themselves for the annual invasion…

The word ‘galanthophile’ seems to have been coined by the great plantsman E.A. Bowles, but it has come into regular use only in the last few years, to designate – usually sympathetically, occasionally with astonishment – people who love snowdrops. (The Rev. Thomas Frognall Dibdin might have called them galanthomanes?)

In 1851, another Rev., C.A. Johns, in his Flowers of the Field, described the snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis, or ‘milk-flower of the snow’ – Linnaeus on a poetic flight) as ‘the only species, and too well known to need any description’. The plant is not a native, and opinions differ as to whether it was introduced by the Romans or in the sixteenth century. The first references to the name ‘snowdrop’ in the OED are from 1664, but common local names such as ‘February fairmaids’ and ‘Candlemas bells’ may be much older.

Anyway, while Johns was being dogmatic, James Atkins, a Northamptonshire nurseryman, was already breeding distinctive cultivars: Galanthus atkinsii was and is very popular and widely grown.  Anglesey Abbey (usefully close to Cambridge, and a wonderful garden at all times of the year) was famous for its snowdrops in the nineteenth century, but a change of fashion led to many of the naturalised bulbs being dug up and thrown on the compost heap. When elm trees ravaged by Dutch elm disease had to be felled and cleared in the 1970s, many snowdrop varieties, survivors interbred from the cast-off bulbs, were found flourishing in the undergrowth, and more than fifteen of these were raised commercially, including Galanthus ‘Anglesey Abbey’ and ‘Richard Ayres’, appropriately named for the then head gardener.

But the particular galanthophile I want to mention today is Henry John Elwes (1846–1922), the son of a Gloucestershire gentleman and the descendant of an eccentric miser who had founded the family fortune. After Eton and the Guards, Elwes ‘retired’ at the age of 24 and spent the rest of his life travelling in pursuit of natural history. Birds of Sikkim and Tibet, butterflies and moths (he discovered 15 new species and had a collection of 15,000 specimens) and the Great Sheep of the Altai (first described by Marco Polo) were all grist to his mill.

He was also very interested in plants, and collected the snowdrop named after him, Galanthus elwesii (the ‘giant snowdrop’), near Smyrna (Izmir) in Turkey in 1874.  He wrote a beautiful and authoritative folio monograph on the genus Lilium in 1880, and was renowned for his ability to propagate exotic specimens and coax them into flower. When he inherited Colesbourne in 1891, he planned  a great arboretum, though he was frustrated by limestone-based soil of the Cotswolds. However, several of his own trees feature in Trees of Great Britain and Ireland (7 vols., 1906–13), written with his friend and fellow botanist Augustine Henry, which we have just reissued.

Henry (1857–1930) was a physician who took up botany as a hobby when he was working in China. He was based in Shanghai and Hubei, but also made two long trips to Sichuan, and the herbarium he assembled during this period is kept at Kew. (There are many ‘Henryi’ plants, of which the best known is probably Lilium henryi.) He retired from China in 1900, and his love of plants sent him in another direction: he trained at the French School of Forestry in order to pursue a second career. While there, he met Elwes, who persuaded him to join the trees venture, and he spent several years travelling around Great Britain and Ireland, identifying, measuring and recording trees.

The seven-volume work was privately printed in Edinburgh, and the final volume contains (as well as a Postscript, errata and an index of the entire work) a list of subscribers which includes many of the Great and Good: the ‘Bs’ alone offer the Marquess of Bath, the Duchess of Beaufort, the Duchess of Bedford, the Duke of Bedford (2 copies), and Brodie of Brodie, Brodie Castle, Forres, Scotland. It is fascinating to see the names of the then owners of historic gardens such as Nymans, Powis Castle, Mark’s Hall, Highgrove, Revesby Abbey, Trelissick, Myddleton House (E.A. Bowles again), Borde Hill, Ribston Hall (where the famous pippins come from), Leonardslee, Holkham, Tyntesfield, West Dean, Wakehurst Place…

The entries follow a formula: a short introductory essay on each genus (e.g. Populus) is followed by subdivisions of the genus and then species, with short or long notes on each, depending on their familiarity or rarity. There are sometimes notes on propagation and raising from seed, and on distribution and the usefulness of the timber.

Best of all are the sections on ‘Remarkable trees’, where the authors locate and describe the most spectacular (usually the largest) trees of each species known to them. So, ‘The finest grey poplars that we have seen are in a group called the Grove in the park at Longleat… There are several very fine trees at Colesborne [sic]’, one of which appears as a plate. At the end of each volume are line drawings of leaf and bud outlines for each genus, and black-and-white plates showing some of the ‘remarkable trees’. There was a Sophora in the middle of the laboratories in Downing Street, Cambridge – I rather fear it may longer be there, but I will go and look. In fact, if one had world enough and time, it would be wonderful to seek out Elwes and Henry’s remarkable trees across the length and breadth of the United Kingdom.

Meanwhile, I’ll make do with the snowdrops at Anglesey Abbey and Cambridge University Botanic Garden, while wishing the dedicated galanthophiles all the best for a spectacular season.

Caroline

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5 Responses to Galanthophilia

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