Kindly contributed by gardener, writer and broadcaster Matthew Biggs

There are 19 species of snowdrop, found from the Pyrenees to Iran with the greatest concentration in Turkey. One of the most familiar, Galanthus nivalis, has long been naturalised in Britain, where they are a welcome sight in late winter. Part of their character is that they produce spontaneous variants, notably with unusual flower forms, colour mutations or markings, which pop up from time to time in the wild and in collections. These are seized upon by keen-eyed enthusiasts or developed by breeders with an eye for a ‘slow buck’ and voraciously collected by ‘galanthophiles’, who will pay high prices for rarities.

In 2015, an anonymous buyer paid £1,390 + £4 postage for a single Galanthus ‘Golden Fleece’ on ebay; others may be for sale by tender, are strictly limited in catalogues, or sold on a first come, first served basis. It is the 21st century equivalent of ‘tulipomania’.

Among the rarities in the collection at Chelsea Physic Garden are several produced by the celebrated galanthophile Heyrick Greatorex (d.1954). Little is known about Greatorex other than that he was captain of a Home Guard platoon, who lived in a wooden house at the bottom of his garden in Norfolk. He introduced a famous series of double snowdrops, naming around fourteen, several after female Shakespearean characters, having a preference for names ending in -a.

Galanthus 'Hippolyta', whose flowers are formed from a multitude of rounded green-edged tepals, is considered to be one of the best double snowdrops. He also raised Galanthus 'Desdemona’, a large-flowered irregular double, which produces green lines at the tips of the outer segments – but only in some gardens. It is the only flower of the Greatorex types to occasionally produce four perfect outer segments.

Another prized selection in the Physic Garden collection, Galanthus 'Wendy's Gold' boasts a distinctive yellow ovary and large yellow to lime green inner markings. This was part of a spontaneous clump discovered in 1974 at Wandlebury Ring in Cambridgeshire by the warden, Bill Clark, and is named for his wife.

But perhaps the most remarkable of all is Galanthus 'Mrs Thompson', described as ‘one of the most sought-after freaks of the snowdrop world’ (a back handed compliment, indeed!) whose individual stems produce one or two single flowers or an oddly-fused flower with extra segments. This was first sent to the RHS scientific committee as long ago as 1950. Mrs Thompson’s reaction to being commemorated in this way is unknown, but what’s certain is that whatever their shape or form, few can resist the beauty of snowdrops, those delightful, sometimes quirky, harbingers of spring.

Heralding Spring