Heyrick Greatorex: The Founding Father Of Snowdrop Breeders

Short, stocky double snowdrops in pink heather

Common Galanthus nivalis doubles growing in heather with a taller snowdrop to the right

Heyrick Greatorex, our first known snowdrop breeder, was responsible for a series of hybrids known as the Greatorex doubles. Unlike the common, bee-made, short, dumpling-style nivalis doubles, Greatorex’s doubles dangle large, skirted flowers from tall scapes. Introduced during the 1940s and 50s (Heyrick Greatorex died in 1954), their vigour has carried most of them through to today… or so we think!

Comments online suggest that Heyrick Greatorex was ‘an ordinary, untrained home gardener’, but whether you’ll accept that depends how you define ‘ordinary’.

His grandfather, Thomas Greatorex, was a Fellow of the Linnaean Society, so we can assume at least one member of his close family had a keen interest in natural history. His parents moved about often while Heyrick Greatorex was young, but in 1901, the family was living in Sawbridgeworth – if we can believe all we read, in a home that would be named Beckingham Palace by the media to tease its later owners, David and Victoria Beckham. That’s about as Posh as it gets!

When Greatorex married in 1915, his occupation was listed as ‘gentleman’. In subsequent years he could perhaps, with The Smiths, have claimed: “I am a man of means: slender means”. He and his wife, Janette, lived in a small house made of brick, timber and corrugated iron that had an old railway carriage standing in for a conservatory or garden room. Decades of disputes with the local council over their home’s legality ended in the council taking ownership of the land after the couple had both died. Meanwhile, perhaps to soothe his soul, he set out to breed snowdrops.

Greatorex grew swathes of bulbs at his garden, Snowdrop Acre, including the common double snowdrop (which can produce pollen but does not set seed), Galanthus plicatus and Galanthus ikariae. He gradually acquired a wide collection of unusual forms from other gardeners.

Some types of plant will flower in their first year from seed – roses, for example – but it requires persistence to successfully nurture seed-grown snowdrops to flowering stage. The bulbs are only grain sized after their first year of growth. Most snowdrop seedlings first flower three or four years after the seed is planted, although it can take six years or longer. To complicate matters for a potential snowdrop breeder, flowers produced in the first seasons may not be typical of the fully established plant.

Looking inside the inner segments of a double 'Dionysus' snowdrop

Galanthus ‘Dionysus’ is one of the Greatorex doubles

Whether or not Heyrick Greatorex knew this, he was undeterred. He hand-crossed pollen from the common double snowdrop (which goes by the tautological name Galanthus nivalis f. pleniflorus ‘Flore Pleno’) on to desirable forms of Galanthus plicatus, which would be the seed-bearing plants. G. plicatus is a good doer, with deep green, slightly pleated leaves, often with a silver stripe. I’d be surprised if his experimentation ended there. Either way, he did not leave detailed records  of his crosses.

And that’s really where my story starts. You read that right, starts.

My interest in Greatorex was sparked when I saw this gorgeous mystery snowdrop at Rode Hall during their month of snowdrop walks (this runs until Sunday 3rd March 2019, so you still have time to catch it – just!visit Rode Hall’s website for details):

Four double snowdrops, one lifted up to show the centre

Mystery snowdrop with dark green inner segments and green striped outer segments

Regular readers will have marked my interest in plants with double flower forms and may remember my weakness for snowdrops with green markings their outer petals (technically, virescent snowdrops). I especially like anything that reminds me of a rose.

All the snowdrops in this little patch looked the same. Their buds were long and slender. The flowers were beautifully rounded, with arching outer petals not much longer than their inner ‘skirts’. These were a strikingly deep shade of green, noticably darker than the other snowdrops around them. The flowers had neat, rosebud-like forms (that should have been a clue) and had green stripes.

I’d never seen anything quite like them.

Back at home I did a little research and concluded they were perhaps some form of Greatorex double or an offspring of one, but could not pin anything down. I wasn’t going to guess the name without the backing of an expert galanthophile, and knew someone was likely to ask what it was when I shared the picture here, so I appealed to Rode Hall’s Ceri Fosbrook for help with identification.

She kindly replied to tell me that Lady Wilbraham had identified my mystery snowdrop as Galanthus ‘Jaquenetta’, one of the better known Greatorex doubles. As I had photographed G. ‘Jaquenetta’, looking quite different, I was surprised. Luckily (in one way) I was promptly stricken by an attack of the dreaded lurgy, and a lethargic recovery gave me plenty of chance to research snowdrops.

It turns out that snowdrops, even named ones, are far from predictable. Flowers in a mixed clump of mature and young bulbs may look quite different. Their height varies. The number of segments in the flowers, their markings and colours can be different from year to year. Bulbs occasionally produce two flowers on a single scape. Doubles can produce single flowers or semi-doubles. Snowdrops can have green stripes on their outer petals some years and not others. Go figure! (as my sweetheart might say).

These pictures of another Greatorex double, Galanthus ‘White Swan’, both labelled in a collector’s garden, have slightly different markings – the left one has a fairly short upside-down u-shape green marking, while the one on the right has a larger, blurrier, more m-shaped marking.

Try googling any named snowdrop and click on ‘Images’ rather than ‘All’ at the top of the results. Scroll down a bit. In some cases, Google is picking out the wrong results. In others, snowdrops are either masters of disguise or misnamed. In many cases the difference is down to the natural variation of the plant; the effects of weather; different growing conditions; whether the plant is flowering for the first time or well-established and whether the clump has recently been dug up or split.

The cherry on this layer cake of complexity is that our hero, Mr Greatorex, (my hero at least) was more interested in breeding snowdrops than in protecting their image. While contemporary drawings exist of some of them, Greatorex didn’t formally describe his new snowdrops, let alone take pictures to assist with their identification. They’ve been passed down from hand to hand by snowdrop lovers, much as Homer’s epic poems, by some miracle, came down to us through an aural tradition of storytellers.

And, thinking about it, these Galanthus ‘Jaquenetta’ flowers I saw were still in the process of opening out to their full, skirted forms when I visited Rode Hall; the slender buds in the background, a misdirection, making me think that I was holding the fully open form. A coincidence that there were no fully open flowers in the clump.

Galanthus 'Jaquenetta' with foliage and buds

Mystery solved: Galanthus ‘Jaquenetta’ pictured partly open, with a pointed bud in the background

2019 has granted them stripes, but nobody on earth knows whether 2020 will. Assuming these are established plants, the outer petals will have lengthened and reflexed back by now, exchanging their youthful, chubby charm for stately elegance.

Before I go, I have to briefly address a number of online references to Heyrick Greatorex as being a reclusive character some neighbours saw as strange. I’m not sure what evidence we have for that other than that he lived simply, a little off the grid. He exchanged snowdrops with many others. We ought to have fellow feeling for him: how many plant lovers have at least one neighbour that might say much the same kind of thing about them? You may by now be concluding that I’m a little strange, for paying this much attention to how green snowdrops are!

A list of Greatorex doubles and their name origins

Greatorex is thought to have named 14 snowdrops himself, many celebrating Shakespeare’s female characters. He showed a distinct preference for names ending in -a, sidestepping some of the obvious choices, such as Juliet and Rosalind.

Shakespearean characters

Galanthus ‘Cordelia’ (Lear’s principled daughter)
Galanthus ‘Desdemona’ (the innocent, loving wife smothered by jealous Othello)
Galanthus ‘Hippolyta’ (Queen of the Amazons, Midsummer Night’s Dream)
Galanthus ‘Jaquenetta’ (dairymaid, lover of Don Armado, Love’s Labour’s Lost)
Galanthus ‘Lavinia’ (violated in Titus Andronicus; Heyrick’s mother’s middle name)
Galanthus ‘Nerissa’ (Portia’s loyal maid, Merchant of Venice)
Galanthus ‘Ophelia’ (Hamlet’s rueful, rejected beloved)
Galanthus ‘Titania’ (the enchanted Fairy Queen, Midsummer Night’s Dream)

Other Greatorex Doubles

Galanthus ‘Dionysus’ (Greek god of theatre and the grape harvest)
Galanthus ‘Jenny Wren’ (Widow of Cock Robin in the traditional song)
Galanthus ‘Poseidon’ (Greek god of the sea, storms and horses. Heyrick was wounded and awarded two medals for his service as a cavalryman during WW1.)
Galanthus ‘White Swan’ (May be a reference to Shakespeare, Ben Johnson’s ‘Sweet Swan of Avon’)
Galanthus G71

You may have noted one is a mere code and another one is missing out of the fourteen he is said to have named. If anyone can help fill in the gaps, I will update the list. Mere speculation, but I’m thinking there ought to have been a Miranda, which may be my love of The Tempest showing – most people would concur that Galanthus ‘Viola’ would have been a step too far!

23 thoughts on “Heyrick Greatorex: The Founding Father Of Snowdrop Breeders

  1. Chloris says:

    I have 7 different Greatorex doubles, Ophelia, Titania, Cordelia, Jacquenetta, Dionysius and G71 and although I love them I think even the experts have trouble telling some of them apart.

    • susurrus says:

      Do you have a favourite? I’d been relying on my knowledge of named roses to understand snowdrops, and that was giving me a poor steer. A rose’s flower size, form, colour and fragrance will often – you might say usually – change according to the climate it’s grown in, assuming the climates are different enough, but the changes are predictable and consistent.

      • Chloris says:

        My favourite is a good form of Cordelia which I bought from Graham Gough of Marchant’s Nursery. He called it ‘Washfield Titania’. But I think Dionysus is lovely too, it is a nice tall one with good markings and the early flowering Ophelia is pretty too and clumps up well.

  2. Vicki says:

    That ‘double’ snowdrop is absolutely gorgeous. I’ve never seen anything like it. We have a nice bed of Snowflakes here in the Botanic Gardens, but that’s a different patterned petal completely.

    (BTW I worked for The Smiths when I lived in Sussex in 1978. I assume we are talking about the same family).

    • susurrus says:

      You’ll see snowdrops with heart shaped markings, crosses or fish, and some have quirky little faces on them, including a double I photographed at Rode Hall (not one of the Greatorex ones).

  3. Oddment says:

    It took me hours to get through this — I had so much to learn! — but what fun! The dreaded lurgy? No clue! In looking that up, I came across “nonce word.” I knew “nonce” but had never seen it used that way, and I could make a respectable guess, but I had to check to be sure, of course. And so it went. I’ve taken all manner of detours, trying to keep up with you and Mr. Greatorex. He must have been quite a reader! How could anyone think of a flower-and-word-lover as strange? It’s impossible. I love the comparison to Homer’s epic; there is indeed something very epic about garden stories. And then there’s that “long and slender” bud — so proud! Ah, what the small things have to show us! My education gallops on…

    • susurrus says:

      It was just supposed to be a rapturous, common-or-garden post about a snowdrop that caught my eye, but the more I read, the more I needed to read.

      My Dad used to say ‘dreaded lurgy’ – I might have guessed it came from The Goons. And I agree – it’s people who don’t like flowers who are… no, I won’t say it, in the interests of not casting aspersions.

      • Oddment says:

        Rapturous, yes; common, no! Indeed that whole thing about reading and then needing to do more reading was very contagious in that post! “Casting aspersions” was something MY dad used to say!

  4. Ali, The Mindful Gardener says:

    What a lovely post. I always want to defend people described as reclusive. You never know what has happened in that person’s life, if they are merely shy, or even just contented in their own company. Or busy doing exciting things with snowdrops!

    • susurrus says:

      Thanks, Ali. It wouldn’t do for us all to be the same – it’s often the outliers who shake up the world for the better. And most keen gardeners have been tempted by excess!

  5. Laurie Graves says:

    I’m with you all the way with the green and white snowdrops. So striking. Also love “slender means.” That could apply to quite a few of us. 😉

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