A grand way to sell a snowdrop

Galanthus nivalis.
Galanthus nivalis.

How much would you be prepared to pay for a plant that you considered to be rather special? The thought occurred to me last week when I read that a single snowdrop (galanthus) bulb had sold on eBay for in excess of £1,000.

The comparison with tulip-mania, which swept the Netherlands in the early part of the 17th century, immediately sprang to mind.

At its peak, single bulbs were exchanged for a fortune – then came the crash. Is history in danger of repeating itself?

In the closing years of the 16th century, tulips were introduced to Holland from Turkey and the Dutch took to them immediately. This popularity made them quite expensive, more so when a widespread but harmless mosaic virus manifested itself in the form of attractively-flamed petals.

A combination of the diverse coloured patterns appearing naturally and being created by hybridists, turned tulips into a status symbol and seemingly sound investment.

But the financial fallout was just as spectacular when it came. At its peak, a special bulb was being exchanged for the cost of a large mansion, then it plunged to little more than the face value of a tulip bulb today.

Present-day galanthophiles (snowdrop lovers) are obviously aware of this tulip-mania background, and will probably point out in defence that they’re not all forking out 1.6k for a bulb.

Indeed, when I browsed eBay last week, the bidding for snowdrop bulbs was quite modest. A hundred of the single-flowered common snowdrop (galanthus nivalis) stood at £12.90 and 50 of the rather lovely, double-flowered Flore Pleno was hovering at a similar price.

Hardly extravagant I’d say.

But the fact remains that over the past few years, top price for a bulb has risen from £350 to £725 and now £1,600. The number of serious investors out there seems to be growing. Quite fascinating when you think that the differences between some snowdrop varieties appear so minor. It’s only when you get down to ground level among the flowers that you appreciate this.

When a top seed firm paid £360 for a bulb of Green Tear two years ago, they no doubt saw it as worth the price from a future sales and investment point of view. Shortly after that, a really unusual specimen sold for more than double the price. The majority of snowdrops have green markings, rarely yellow, on white petals, but this one, Elizabeth Harrison, has a yellow ovary which is rare – no wonder the bidding was high.

A new record price was set just three weeks ago, and eBay was once again the base for bidding. An unnamed cultivar was bought by a lady so she could have the pleasure of naming it after her father. Family love before profit perhaps. The price was eye-watering too!

There are circa 20 species of snowdrop to be found in the United Kingdom and an estimated 3,000 flower variations within them. Before one of these variations can be registered as a cultivar with a specific name, it has to be passed by a reputable source, the Royal Horticultural Society for example.

At a guess, there are around 2,000 recognised cultivars in existence now but the number grows daily thanks to hybridising, chance seedlings and genetic mutations.

Why has this Victorian favourite become so popular all over again?

It is certainly a tough little plant, cheerfully blooming in drifts at the most inhospitable time of year. Humble, too, with it’s slightly bowed head and so easy to propagate when clumps are divided-up straight after flowering (in the green). Perhaps the main attraction for galanthophiles is the search for that one in a million which must exist in some February woodland.