Plant catalogue reviews: North Green Snowdrops

Cover of the 1999 edition of the North Green Snowdrops catalogue

In winter months in England, there are days when gardeners cling to plant catalogues as if they are all we have of spring. I’m beginning my series of reviews with what might seem a fairly obscure choice – North Green snowdrops catalogue – but this is one that has an almost legendary status for galanthophiles.

I’ve been treasuring my copy since 1999. It has pretty much everything I look for in a gardening catalogue, in a classic, stripped down form. It appeals to so many instincts, including my fascination with marketing plants, my appreciation for the modest beauty of shade-loving varieties and the inner plant nerdiness I try to subdue.

And few plants are more welcome than snowdrops peeping through the snow. It’s our very first sign that spring is not too far away.

North Green’s 1999 edition is of modest size, with loganberry red wrappers, and a hand-finished, printed label, neatly positioned within an embossed rectangle. It couldn’t look less like mass produced, glossy gardening catalogues.

Inside there are loving descriptions of snowdrops, with black and white line drawings and a few cross-sections for illustrations, presumably by the owner John Morley, as he’s an artist.

Illustration of 'Jacquenetta' snowdrop by John Morley

An illustration of ‘Jacquenetta’ snowdrop by John Morley, taken from the North Green Snowdrops Catalogue 1999

And yes, you’ve guessed it – I’m one of those who does take pleasure in noticing whether a snowdrop has a tiny heart or a small cross on its petals; whether the markings are a shade of green or yellow; whether the variety will flower early in the season or late; which varieties are tallest or sturdiest and which will naturalise the best. Otherwise I doubt this catalogue would hold so much fascination for me.

I accept there’ll be others – including many fine gardeners – for whom a snowdrop is a snowdrop. Even for these, there’s some advice from North Green:

“One of the greatest pleasures in gardening is viewing snowdrops on a warm day in winter; the sun at this time of year is very low in the sky and can be blindingly bright. Remember therefore to plant your snowdrops so that you can look at them with the sun behind you.”

This thoughtful detail may seem to have nothing at all to do with selling plants. I can see many an editor sweeping a pencil through it. Foolishly, for the picture painted adds a touch of magic – the human perspective – as the gardener imagines the sight of snowdrops illuminated by the winter sun. I hope there will always be room in every British gardening catalogue (or website) to squeeze in a bit of good, old-fashioned plant poetry like this.

You just can’t fake this kind of insight. I’ve heard it said that specialist plant breeders and collectors around the world share particular – perhaps even peculiar – characteristics; what’s certain is that, after years of obsessing about the plants they are passionate about, and observing them in gardens, they become aware of details that may not be consciously noticed by others.

The slender North Green catalogue also finds room for quotations from E.A. Bowles (and the Song of Solomon), cultivation tips and a bibliography. People looking to purchase bulk amounts of snowdrops for naturalising are asked to contact a local grower, Raveningham Gardens. Five varieties of snowdrop are strictly rationed: only one bulb is allowed per order.

It all gives the impression of someone who puts far greater value on the plants themselves – and on making sure the gardeners who grow them have the best possible experience – than on making a quick buck. Just the kind of plantsperson I want my plants to come from.

As usual, my copy of the catalogue has been annotated here and there, sadly in pen rather than pencil: a few modest wants have been highlighted, ready for any time my garden gets a little larger. I’ve a secret ambition to try my hand at propagating some of these tiny bulbs myself. Yet growing snowdrops isn’t just the quiet, contemplative country pursuit you’d imagine.

I don’t know if other areas of the world are plagued by snowdrop rustlers, but if you have a decent collection somewhere in England, you’d be wise to take measures to prevent gardening pirates from aiming their eyeglasses over the boundaries of your cottage garden.

Despite my levity, it’s no joke. Snowdrops have become big business. I doubt the thieves will ever understand the heartbreak their thefts of a few clumps of bulbs bring to gardeners who have spent a lifetime building up rare and beautiful collections.

Thompson and Morgan paid £725 in 2012 for a single bulb of yellow snowdrop Galanthus woronowii ‘Elizabeth Harrison’ in what they describe on their website as an eBay bidding frenzy. They’re now building up stock. In contrast, North Green’s 2014 catalogue arrived late, with sad news of the theft of all their ‘Elizabeth Harrison’ bulbs. Not the 30th anniversary they had hoped for. Gardeners can only sympathise.

If the idea of plant rustlers seems a bit far-fetched, take a look at this news story: snowdrop snatchers.

Perhaps John’s gone underground in defence against the rustlers – I hope not, but I wouldn’t like to break his cover, so I’m not publishing his full contact details here. I’m pretty sure there’s never been a North Green Snowdrops website, but if you search carefully, you’ll find little references to the annual catalogue scattered across the internet, especially in snowdrop circles. The traditional way to receive a copy has always been to send six 1st class stamps to John Morley at his Suffolk address.

You might just want to double check the details online for yourself before taking the plunge – and check that the security of your garden’s up to scratch too!

*Update 1st Feb 2015 – since writing this post, a North Green Snowdrops website has been launched, where you can see a digital version of the latest catalogue. I’m including this link at the request of John Morley and I wish him every success! 

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