Cambo Estate – snowdrop time in Scotland

Following the Snowdrop Festival Trail…

SCOTLAND St. Andrews – “Take the path to the sea,” the man in the blue, wooly sweater advised. It’s quite a lovely walk.” “Are you the head gardener?” I asked. “No,” he responded with a smile, “I’m Peter Erskine.” Oh?

Oh, again – as it dawned on me that the blue, wooly, sweater wearer was Sir Peter Erskine, heir to this estate to which I’d come to spend a day wandering its acres swathed in snowdrops. Cambo Estate, one of Scotland’s grandest.

In February and March hundreds, thousands, of visitors pour through Cambo’s entrance gates to “ooh” and “aah” over sweeping swaths of tiny, white, ballerina skirts nodding beneath winter-bare beech, oak and sycamore woodlands. The Scottish Snowdrop Festival and Trail beckons them here, an annual celebration that draws “galanthophiles,” snowdrop enthusiasts, from the world over.

Swaths of snowdrops signal spring around the corner …

In 2008, 53 of Scotland’s estates and gardens threw open their doors in celebration of the snowdrop. Of them, Cambo, on the edge of the North Sea but seven miles south of St. Andrews, promises the most extravagant and diverse snowdrop display.

Snowdrops, Galanthus (from the Greek, gala meaning milk, anthos, flower), have claimed the hearts of the British for centuries, signaling as they pierce through the cold earth that the gray skies of winter will indeed depart and that spring is around the corner.

So prolific are Britain’s snowdrops, showing up everywhere from cemeteries to ditches to grand estates, that an easy assumption is they are native.

Origin of snowdrops remains a mystery …

Not so, although their origin remains a mystery. One belief, since they are frequently found in the gardens of old monasteries, is that monks, arriving from Italy in the 15th century, brought bulbs with them. Lending credence to that belief is that Britain’s first garden reference to snowbells appears in the 1597-published General Historie of Plants by English herbalist John Gerard.

No records exist at Cambo Estate, where the Erskine family has lived since the 17th century, as to when snowdrops were introduced. Peter Erskine, however, credits his grandmother, Magdalene, with encouraging their spread throughout its 70-acres of woodlands. An avid gardener, she “dragooned,” as Peter describes it, her eight children into helping her dig, divide and replant dormant bulbs.

It is the current Lady Erskine, however, Peter’s wife Catherine, who has put Cambo on the snowdrop map as a “must see” destination for galanthophiles.

Disrepair led the way to snowdrops galore …

Catherine’s involvement began 30 years ago when Peter’s parents turned the estate over to the couple. A two-and-a-half acre walled garden, gone into disrepair, captured her attention. “I wanted to rescue the garden,” she said, “and I needed money for plants.”

For several years she sold autumn-dug snowdrop bulbs, charging so much a tray. “Then I read that it was better to plant snowdrops straight after flowering,” she said. A business of offering snowdrops “in the green” blossomed. “The youngest of our five children was born in January and I was sending out bulbs in February and March. It was a bit crazy,” she remembered. Eventually she enlisted the youngsters’ help. “Unlike Peter’s grandmother, I paid them!” she added with a laugh.

Cambo’s collection numbers some 700 varieties …

The fame of Cambo snowdrops spread, along with Catherine’s growing awareness of the often minute differences between varieties. The world’s galanthophiles have identified 19 species, a handful of natural hybrids, and some 700 varieties. Catherine’s specialty collection numbers more than 200 – “planted close to the house so I can keep an eye on them,” she said – painstakingly labeled and, in their raised beds, readily displaying delightful variations in shapes and markings. In 2007 the National Council for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens officially recognized Lady Erskine’s collection of snowdrops.

Skyrocketing demand for bulbs …

In recent years, demand for specialist bulbs has skyrocketed. While not approaching the binge of “tulipmania” that engulfed the Dutch in the 1630s, when tulip bulb prices rose out of all proportion to economic reality, a single specialist snowdrop bulb sold at auction last year in England for the equivalent of $200.

What began at Cambo as a way to refurbish the walled garden – now accomplished, with the garden a year-around visitor attraction – has turned into a business dispatching hundreds of thousands of bulbs. No longer is Catherine the sole worker. Six employees and a small army of volunteers give her a hand.

Snowdrops, a cottage industry – if that it could be called, given the size of Cambo’s manor house – metamorphosed into a full-scale business and tourist attraction. During February and March, Cambro promotes itself as a Snowdrop Fair. Plants – snowdrops, aconites, helleborus, cyclamen, crocus – are potted up for sale; a gift shop displays local potters’ snowdrop-inspired wares; art work on the theme of snowdrops provides an art show; a tea room serves. Snowdrop talks and guided walks complete the program.

Other woodland owners jumped on Cambo’s snowdrop bandwagon with their versions of a Fair. “As interest increased throughout Scotland,” Catherine said, “it seemed sensible to bring all the owners of snowdrop woods and gardens together under one umbrella and promote a Snowdrop Festival and Trail throughout Scotland.”

Tiptoeing through the snowdrops on a Festival Tour ….

The National Trust for Scotland and Scotland’s Gardens’ Scheme agreed, along with VisitScotland, the Scottish national tourist board. In 2006, the first nationwide festival was held, enticing some 7500 visitors to tiptoe through the country’s snowdrops. A grateful VisitScotland recognized Sir Peter and Lady Erskine with a Scottish Thistle Award for excellence and innovation.

Those meeting Lady Erskine as she goes about her snowdrop tasks dressed in her everyday gear of work boots, sturdy gardener’s jacket, and scarf around neck might be excused for mistaking her for Cambo’s head gardener. If in doubt, ask the man in the blue, woolly sweater.

Cultivation know-how …

Snowdrops, early-flowering bulbs of the daffodil family, are hardy and resistant to cold, but can be a bit fickle about where they grow. Preference is humus-rich, moist but well-drained soil that does not dry out in summer. Partial shade is ideal. To encourage spread, as the leaves die back in late spring, lift, split clumps and replant.

Snowdrops are amenable to indoor pot culture. In October, place bulbs in peaty, gritty, soil mix in an earthenware container with their tips just below the rim. Put the container in a dark, cool area and water occasionally. When top growth emerges, transfer to a cool windowsill and continue to water lightly.

Dutch Bulbs and Breck’s bulbs are sources in the United States for common varieties.