Weekly Witter: Paying £700 for a flower and the everlasting appeal of the snowdrop

At a time when National Trust gardeners head out for their annual Valentines Day flower count, love is in the air for the NT’s humblest hero that takes centre stage at this time of year. A gleaming white carpet of snowdrops is one of the simplest pleasures that our gardens can offer, but we have a real love affair with this little white flower. At Anglesey Abbey in Cambridgeshire, the snowdrop displays typically attract nearly 40,000 people over six weeks.

“There’s a word for Snowdrop fanatics – who knew?”

Snowdrops (Galanthus 'Nivalis') covering the ground at Anglesey Abbey, Cambridgeshire

Snowdrops carpet the ground like late snowfall at Anglesey Abbey.

There are more than 240 varieties at Anglesey Abbey; some of these were found by 1st Lord Fairhaven’s gardeners, and have been named after the family and close friends. Here hardcore Galanthophiles (there’s a word for Snowdrop fanatics – who knew?) can track down varieties like ‘Galanthus elewesii Huttleston’ (Huttleston was the 1st Lord Fairhaven’s Christian name) and ‘Anglesey Abbey Galanthus nivalis’ – the very first snowdrop found here. Beyond Anglesey, there’s a whole snowdrop industry out there for the enthusiast. There are as many as 2000 hybrids and selections; rare single bulbs have been known to fetch as much as £700.

“These little white petals are the first glimmer of hope…”

I suspect, though, that most of the people who come to enjoy Anglesey’s snowdrop spectacle are responding to something much more elemental. For me, it goes beyond the aesthetic – although there’s something particularly uplifting about the way in which the dazzling white of the snowdrop carpet lights up a damp, sombre February woodland. When we’ve been cooped up all winter, the snowdrops are the first release for all that pent-up desire to get out – something to see at last. But more than that; snowdrops are sparking off some hard-wiring inside us, dating back to a time when our lives were dominated much more by the changing seasons. These little white petals are the first glimmer of hope – the advance guard for the hordes of richness and colour to come.

“Circular pleasures give us a comforting sense of immortality.”

We have a deep human need for these circular pleasures; that is to say, those things (like snowdrops, Christmas, daffodils, autumn colour and the FA Cup Final) that come round reliably every year. That’s one of the reasons why there are maybe 80 million visits every year to our gardens and outdoors, and why events like Easter Egg hunts and autumn walks are so enduringly popular (also why we can be a bit quiet on Wimbledon Finals weekend). Circular pleasures give us a comforting sense of immortality; our lives keep turning around like a big wheel, and we can always look forward to the same again next year. When we’re younger we tend to look for more linear pleasures – new bands, contemporary art, technology – things that give us a sense of growth and discovery. When the future is exciting and full of possibilities, we like things that reinforce that feeling of forward movement. When the future is less certain, we look for the comforting re-emergence of the snowdrops to reassure us that life goes on.

  • Tony Berry has been with the National Trust since the early 1990s, working regionally and nationally in PR, marketing, commercial development and learning. As Visitor Experience Director, he’s now responsible for ways in which the Trust welcomes visitors and brings its properties to life.

  • The Weekly Witter is a new regular Monday morning mouthpiece for our many specialists to talk about what’s on their minds at the moment.
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