Snowdrop collection on show at Little Cumbre in Exeter

PUBLISHED: 12:18 01 February 2016 | UPDATED: 12:18 01 February 2016

Galanthus 'Brenda Troyle' at Little Cumbre, Exeter

Galanthus 'Brenda Troyle' at Little Cumbre, Exeter

© Rex May / Alamy Stock Photo

Don’t miss the last chance to see the wonderful snowdrop collection at Little Cumbre in Exeter, recommends Catherine Courtenay

Hellebores and Snowdrops at Little CumbreHellebores and Snowdrops at Little Cumbre

“I particularly like this one, it’s rather beautiful isn’t it?” Sitting at the large round table in Margaret Lloyd’s kitchen she hands me a ceramic pot, decorated in snowdrops. Behind her there’s a lovely stained glass mirror (made by a family member she tells me) which also features the little white flowers. Even in early winter, when not much is stirring outdoors, there’s a strong hint at why people in their hundreds come each year to visit the garden that surrounds this house.

As we drink tea, looking out across the Exe valley to the far distant hills, the retired doctor recalls how she and her husband John arrived at their Exeter home. One of the first Devon venues of the year to open for the National Gardens Scheme, Little Cumbre has become famed for its display of snowdrops.

When they moved to the newly-built house with its rough, heavy clay garden the Lloyds took with them a collection of shrubs and herbacious plants from their old home in Stoke Canon. Among the collection was a pot of wild snowdrops.

“There was no particular wish to do snowdrops at the time,” she says, “but after a few years of being here my husband wanted to start buying specials - just two or three bulbs. Year by year he’d add a few more varieties and gradually they multiplied. I helped him so much with the collection it became a passion for me too.”

Dr Margaret Lloyd, in her garden at Little CumbreDr Margaret Lloyd, in her garden at Little Cumbre

Margaret credits her husband for introducing snowdrops to Little Cumbre more than 20 years ago, but they both shared a love of gardening, a passion developed through their life together. Indeed, Margaret’s own gardening roots go back to childhood.

“My father was what I’d call a competent gardener. He had a wonderful veg and fruit garden and I’d help him with it.” As her love of plants, and the wildlife they brought to the garden, developed she admits to giving dad a gentle bit of instruction - like when to cut the rhododendron. “No one had told me how to do it, I think I just had an instinctive feel about it,” she says.

The sloping one acre garden at Little Cumbre surrounds the house, with paths winding around different sections of lawn and beds. It’s bordered at the higher end by a wooded area, a later extension of the garden and one which allowed Margaret to cultivate her love of nature. Wild snowdrops have been planted in a swathe, along with cyclamen coum (“to keep the snowdrops company,” she says), snakes head fritillery, crocus and wild daffodils. Elsewhere in the garden around 30 different galanthus cultivars are in clumps and clearly labelled; the clumps divided and either moved around or potted up and sold at the open gardens events.

As the years have gone on, and the garden become more crowded, Margaret has given some of her cultivars to fellow galanthophiles like Jo Hynes in Dolton and Helen Brown in Honiton. Needless to say, despite her garden’s snowdrop fame, Margaret wouldn’t describe herself as a galanthophile, “not in the classic sense of the word, anyway,” she says. The burning passion for collecting snowdrops in their hundreds is not for her. “I just love them for what they are,” she simply says. Her reluctance may also be due to a fondness for “the simpler bloom”. “It’s the charm of the ordinary snowdrops,” she says. “The various species are quaint and interesting, but they don’t have quite the same charm - not for me anyway.”

More snowdrops at Higher Cherubeer, near DoltonMore snowdrops at Higher Cherubeer, near Dolton

Margaret’s love for snowdrops is something many of us share, catching sight of “that beautiful white flower, out in the depths of winter.” She loves the individual markings, and that, “you have to get down on to their level to really appreciate the differences.” “They’re hardy too,” she adds. “If there’s a frost they’re not worried, and they don’t mind snow. One year, we had a heavy snowfall just before the open garden and I had to go all round with a stick, lifting the clumps to shake the snow off.”

Walking around Margaret’s garden in late November, she’s in the process of clearing the beds of geranium and hellebore leaves, making room for the snowdrops to emerge - which some, even now, are beginning to do. An area of garden is set aside for compost making. “I make a lot of compost and return it to the garden, it’s the only feeding I do apart from the camellias which do have some ericaceous plant food. People come here and think we have great soil, but it’s thick clay underneath all that compost.”

Snowdrops are easy to grow she says, with the autumn rain starting the process of regrowth. “You should lift the clumps and divide them every three to four years. And bear in mind they do need sunlight.” Even after they’ve bloomed, the leaves need access to sunlight to store up energy for the next year - which is also why it’s important not to cut back any leaves until at least six weeks after they finish flowering.

Although the main flush of snowdrops is usually from mid January to mid March, Margaret’s will start to appear before Christmas. “The general trend has been for them to come a little early. This year has been the earliest I’ve ever known. Galanthus ‘Atkinsii’ is the first to arrive, and Galanthus ‘Straffan’ is often one of the latest, making it very valuable to have in a garden.”

Not one to have flowers in the house, “I like to see them where they are growing,’ she says, Margaret will occasionally bring a small bunch of snowdrops indoors. Her favourite? “It would have to be Augustus, such a pretty, dumpy snowdrop, quite rounded with bubbly petals like seersucker, and a wide leaf.”

Raising up to £2,000 each year for charity has kept Margaret listing Little Cumbre in the open gardens scheme, but she says the time has come to stop. Words that regular visitors may have heard before, but this time it seems she’s definitely made up her mind. And if this really is the last time Little Cumbre is open to the public then make sure you visit.

Little Cumbre, Sat & Sun 6,7,13,14 Feb (12-3.30pm)

Cherubeer Gardens, Dolton, EX19 8PP. Sun 7, Fri 19 Feb (2-5pm)

Meet Daisy and Jack

Galanthus ‘Daisy Hynes’ and G. ‘Jack Hynes’ could well be stealing the snowdrop limelight in Devon this year. The two snowdrops can be found at Higher Cherubeer, near Dolton, where Jo Hynes has more than 200 varieties.

Named after her two children, Daisy and Jack came from seed of Wind Turbine, collected and sown by Jo in 2011.

Galanthus ‘Wind Turbine’ is a cultivar of Galanthus plicatus subspecies byzantinus where the inner perianth segment has two separate green marks - one at the base, the other at the apex. The outer segments are pure white. But G.’Wind Turbine’ is distinct in having green marks on the outer segment as well, which encourage the petals to relfex up as the temperature and light increases.

G. ‘Jack Hynes’ has two crisp green inner perianth markings as well as a single green slot mark on the outer and G. ‘Daisy Hynes’ has two green outer perianth marks and a fairly solid green inner perianth whorl. ‘Daisy Hynes’ has also inherited its seed parent’s petal reflex habit. I particularly love these two for their impact in the winter garden,” says Jo. “The light, colour and scent they bring is wonderful. And as a beekeeper, I especially value the nectar and pollen they provide for the bees on flying days in midwinter.”

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