Sunday, August 06, 2006

A snowdrop in memory of Lavinia

Last Sunday when I got home from a trip to recycle the remains of the hebe hedge, I found a pleasant surprise on my back doorstep. I knew immediately that a good gardening friend of had visited me because there, sitting proudly in a little black pot, was a charming little double-flowered snowdrop.
I knew who the visitor was, as I know only one galanthophile, snowdrop-lover. I thought I even know which one of her many species and hybrids it would be, and that proved to be right as well.
Along with the plant was a lovely card, also featuring a snowdrop, a single one. The inscription made it plain that the plant was a gift in memory of my daughter Lavinia, and that the pot contained a number of bulbs of the Greatorex hybrid called ‘Lavinia.’
I like growing plants that have family connections, but there are not many plants named ‘Lavinia.’ Apart from this little charmer, which I had drooled over in my friends’ last garden some years ago, I can only think of the camellia, ‘Lavinia de Maggi.’ This is an ancient striped form which I have never seen in New Zealand, but it does appear in overseas catalogues and books.
I have never seen the Galanthus “Lavinia’ for sale in New Zealand either but it must be around, perhaps floating among specialist nurseries.
Many people get snowdrops and snowflakes confused. They both have white flowers and are also both popular early-flowering bulbs, but the snowflakes are much larger.
The most common snowflake is Leucojum aestivum. This is the plant that you will find growing in dampish areas in old gardens, and even in paddocks. It will naturalise easily and is so easily grown that some gardeners tend to sneer at it a little. I recently saw a large clump growing in the Esplanade gardens in Palmerston North, along with some hardy early daffodils, underneath some trees. It looked fabulous.
The six petals of snowflakes are all the same length, and this is the most obvious difference between the snowflakes and the snowdrops. The snowdrops (Galanthus species) have three long petals, and three shorter ones.
In the wild, these petals have an interesting function. On cold and wet days the three outer, larger, petals wrap around the inner petals, where the ‘naughty bits’ are kept, to protect them from the damp. On sunny days, they open up to allow access for insects to pollinate the flowers.
The smaller petals are usually tipped, or banded, with green markings. In some cases, the pouter petals can be tipped or striped with green too.
Galanthophiles (I love that word!) celebrate the variances within the 19 species and the numerous hybrids. Most of us would struggle to differentiate between the hybrids, and would be content with one or two species and/or hybrids.
I have a healthy clump of the most common species, G. nivalis. This is the variety found in most garden centres in the spring. It is widespread across Europe in the wild, and has been naturalised in many countries where it does not naturally occur. In the lower North Island, we are probably near the end of the range for this plant in New Zealand. It does not like warm climates and those further north struggle to grow this well.
The other species sometimes met with is G. plicatus. This has larger stems (up to 25 cm instead of about 15 for G. nivalis) but is otherwise very similar.
The Greatorex hybrids were created by crossing pollen from a very double-flowered old form of G. nivalis with a particularly nicely formed G. plicatus. They were named after various Shakespearian heroines – hence ‘Ophelia,’ ‘Desdemona,’ ‘Titania,’ and, of course, ‘Lavinia.’ They are very similar and even galanthophiles (I had to work that word in again) struggle to determine which is which.
‘Lavinia’ has a wide-spread skirt of outer petals, which effectively mask a very filled layer of green-tipped petticoats. It is a charming little plant and I will cherish it. I have planed it in the little garden that Lavinia helped make when we first shifted here, along with some of her other favourite flowers.


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