For weeks gardeners have been talking about the unseasonably mild winter, fretting about spring stars coaxed into an early appearance, incredulous that summer blooms refuse to die down. Yet at one Cotswold snowdrop garden the higher temperatures have been positively welcomed. Colesbourne Park is set to have one of its best displays ever thanks to a year that has seen gardens turn from summer to spring with barely a pause in between.
The garden’s impressive snowdrop collection of 250 varieties has been largely unaffected and is, believes head gardener Chris Horsfall, merely a week earlier than usual. What is different are the partnership plants that have been added to supplement the snowdrops. Hellebores, cherry and Cornus mas, normally in bloom further into the snowdrop show, are weeks ahead of their usual schedule.
“They think it’s spring,” comments Chris, “but the snowdrops are still coming up. We’ve got these combinations that are quite wonderful.”
Already the cornus is covered in tiny yellow flowers, their colour a striking contrast to the blue of the lake behind; the water colour is believed to be caused by lime. Nearby there are dainty catkins on a willow and colourful dogwood stems adding to the show.
Meanwhile in the woodland spring garden, the hellebores are in full flight in shades of cream, pink and purple, there are sheets of cerise cyclamen and white spangled leaves on Brunnera macrophylla ‘Jack Frost’.
The spring garden was developed from a previously largely overlooked space near the house. Ancient yews were cut back to allow more light in and a winding path of chipped bark was introduced. The planting, while showcasing the snowdrops, is more mixed than in other parts of the garden. Ferns, the native evergreen Daphne laureola, epimedium, Carex ‘Ice Dance’, with its white edged leaves, and Bergenia emeiensis form a backdrop for snowdrops such as ‘Hippolita’ and ‘South Hayes’. Prunus kursar is covered in shell-pink flowers and the dark foliage of Corydalis quantmeyerana ‘Chocolate Stars’ is repeated through the border.
“There were three when I arrived and now I have it everywhere.”
Move out into the woodland and the planting combinations become less complex. Near the ice house there’s a pink and white theme with cyclamen and the scented Galanthus ‘S. Arnott’, while the main display sees vast drifts of snowdrops partnered with golden aconites. Here there are thousands of the dainty double snowdrop ‘Ophelia’, more ‘S. Arnott’ and giant ‘Colossus’.
While the large scale display is what draws many visitors, for the snowdrop obsessed galanthophiles it’s Colesbourne’s collection of rarities that is important.
It was started by Victorian plant-hunter Henry John Elwes, who introduced many plants and trees to cultivation, among them Galanthus elwesii, discovered in Turkey in 1874, and today a commonly grown snowdrop. Colesbourne is now owned by his great grandson Sir Henry Elwes and his wife Carolyn. Together they have extended the number of snowdrops grown and each year add a few more.
New this season are ‘Rosemary Burnham’, which has a green flush to its outer petals and ‘Priscilla Bacon’, which has a seersucker-like texture to its blooms similar to ‘Diggory’.
“It has the most wonderfully shaped flower,” says Chris.
The rare snowdrops are found in raised beds near the house and in a ‘specialities’ border. Among them are yellow snowdrops, including ‘Fiona’s Gold’ and ‘Primrose Warburg’. ‘Margaret Owen’ has unusually large flowers and ‘Gerard Parker’, another large snowdrop is partnered with ‘Wasp’ a more dainty variety.
“We thought it would be a good contrast.”
‘Seraph’ has no inner petals and so opens out to form a white disc while ‘Harewood Twin’, as the name suggests, has two flowers to every stem.
For most visitors though it is the mass displays that are the attraction at Colesbourne, a display that thanks to the weather is this year looking better than ever.
“I thought that’s my winter planting combination sorted out and I’ve had to throw away the books. It’s very humbling,” admits Chris.
• Colesbourne Park, between Cheltenham and Cirencester, is open on January 30 and 31, and every Saturday and Sunday in February. Gates open at 1pm, last entry is at 4.30pm, admission is £7.50, children under 16 enter free. Dogs are welcome on a short lead.
• On Friday February 5, the garden will be open from 1pm for RHS members free of charge on production of valid membership card and other identification.
• More details: http://www.colesbournegardens.org.uk/home.html