Snowdrop mania is back – here's why they are a shrewd investment

A single snowdrop bulb has just sold for nearly £2,000 – why do these flowers have gardeners reaching for the credit card?

The unique 'Golden Tears' snowdrop bred by Joe Sharman of Monksilver Nursery near Cambridge Credit: TIM STEWART NEWS LIMITED

There is a silly season when it comes to growing snowdrops. It reaches a peak in the second half of February, when eBay takes off like a hare whipped up by an early spring gale. One anonymous bidder has just paid £1,850 for one snowdrop bulb named ‘Golden Tears’, setting a new high in one short week of vigorous bidding involving 14 galanthophiles and 55 separate bids. None from me, by the way!

The question on every galanthophile’s mind is not so much why someone shelled out an astronomical amount, but who is bidder number 8***8? Man or woman, for a start? Is he or she an avid gardener who would rather buy a snowdrop than go on an expensive holiday? I’m with them on that one. Or is he (she) an experienced grower intent on cutting up the treasure this summer, in the hope of producing 20 or so saleable babies in four years’ time? If the roulette wheel of chance is kind, it’s a wise investment. But if not, the name ‘Golden Tears’ could take on a new significance. 

Joe Sharman of Monksilver Nursery Credit: Clive Nichols Garden Pictures

I don’t know the answer yet, and may never know, but I do understand why number 8***8 did it, despite one non-snowdropping friend sending me an email saying simply: “It’s bonkers”. You see, this snowdrop has taken years to produce, having been deliberately bred by Joe Sharman of Monksilver Nursery, the most revered and respected of all galanthophiles. He’s been crossing and recrossing generations of seedlings to produce a unique snowdrop, never seen before. And incidentally, he will have kept back some of his precious bulbs, the one just sold on eBay may be the best known but it is not the only one in existence.

Sharman’s starting point was ‘Golden Fleece’, another of his yellow wonders that sold for £1,390 in 2015. This can now be had for approximately £100, because the strong bulb bulks up well. One Norfolk galanthophile has 35 flowers on his plant! Mine is still on only two flowers, sadly, but with lots of leaves. Yes –I’m a saddo who counts the flowers – and I hope for more next year. 

‘Golden Fleece’ and I go back a long way. Circa 2010, I remember Joe Sharman telling me about a new baby that he referred to as ‘Yellow Trym’. On hearing that Mr Snowdrop would have this new creation in his silver button hole while attending the February Vincent Square show (a defunct RHS event mourned by many gardeners), I shot down with my camera. I was disappointed, because Yellow Trym hadn’t flowered in time: it would be another five years before I finally saw it on eBay, under its official title of ‘Golden Fleece’.

Snowdrop fans buying plants at the annual Myddleton House sale in Middlesex Credit: Christopher Pledger

I should explain that the original Galanthus plicatus ‘Trym’ is a pixie-hatted snowdrop with green marks; it was a spontaneous seedling provided by the bees. However, the pollen is magic dust, because it has produced a whole rash of seedlings with the pixie hat shape (and of course, a few yellows). ‘Trumps’, spotted in the late 1990s, is the best of the bunch for vigour. But we also have ‘Tryzm’, ‘Trumpolute’, ‘Trym Baby’, ‘Trimmer’, and so on. 

‘Golden Tears’ is also from the ‘Trym’ school, but it’s an important breakthrough because it’s neat and yellow. The substantial petals keep their shape, without flying outwards, and they have an exceptional yellow-crescent marking, with a large bright yellow ovary above. The flower resembles ‘Bumblebee’ in form and, in five years’ time, most keen galanthophiles will be growing and enjoying it – although having still paid out a considerable sum. I hope to be one of them.

The successful bidder may be just an ordinary gardener (albeit one fixated on snowdrops) who has bought four or five years of sheer enjoyment ahead of the pack. I rather hope so. 

You may question the huge amount paid, but plant breeding is not like planting potatoes. It’s time consuming and laborious, because a snowdrop seed will probably take four years to flower. Once a good one is selected, that seedling has to be grown on for a couple of years to assess how stable the markings are and how vigorous the hybrid is. Then it has to be propagated and named and, in its first year of introduction, it will be very rare and expensive. The whole process takes at least ten years and, if you costed out the hourly rate of labour on all this, Joe Sharman would probably be on less than the minimum wage. 

I admire Joe Sharman’s drive and commitment hugely – although I’m not so sure about his communication skills. The snowdrop dervish has three mobile phones (which smacks of dealing – snowdrops are a bit like that). However, he’s famous for not answering any of them, as I found out on a recent visit to Norfolk. I had to find a remote property, on the postcode alone, but Mr Sharman assured me that he would rescue me when I rang, a difficult thing in the patchy reception of rural Norfolk. 

An hour and a half later, having reached voicemail several times, each call more frantic than the last, a local neighbour guided me to my destination. Joe Sharman had been out on the nursery looking at his snowdrops, of course.
All I can say about the eBay purchase is, let’s hope there will be more bulbs ready to sell soon. Good on you Joe!