First Person: Joe Sharman

The world of “galanthophiles”, or snowdrop collectors, is very competitive. Some of them will stop at nothing to get hold of a rare bulb. Quite a few gardeners were taken aback when news got out that I had sold a single snowdrop bulb for a record-breaking sum. But people who really know about snowdrops wouldn’t be surprised.

I still remember the day 25 years ago when I got a call from my mother, telling me to come and look at something in a Victorian-era walled garden she happened to be visiting. When I got there, she showed me a yellow Galanthus plicatus. Normally snowdrops are white and green but this one was yellow, white and green. There are records of yellow snowdrops but they were historically always weak. This was a large, vigorous plant – it was really exciting.

I asked the garden’s warden, Bill Clarke, if I could take a bulb. He gave me one, kept one for himself and another went to the Cambridge Botanical Gardens. We named it Wendy’s Gold, after Bill’s wife. The rest were sold to a Dutch bulb company for £1,000, or about £25 a bulb. They lost the lot. I never learnt why – perhaps they forgot to water them at a critical time. But that left only three bulbs in existence, including mine.

When my bulb had produced a small clump, I put a picture of the flowers in the Royal Horticultural Society magazine. Immediately, people began turning up at my house. I was overwhelmed. I feared they would steal my bulbs, so I had to hide the plants until the frenzy died down. Through this, I was invited to join a swapping club of about 20 snowdrop enthusiasts. I was nervous the first time I went along; I was only 27 and was meeting people who had been gardening for years.

It was a small and intense world. You were only allowed to ask for three bulbs. After lunch a book was passed around and you wrote down in it which bulbs you would like to receive from the other members. The first time, I asked for three common bulbs. The next time, I asked for something rarer. Each time I asked for something more and more rare, and each time I was given them. When I had grown enough Wendy’s Gold, I gave a bulb to each member.

Meanwhile, I had developed quite a collection of snowdrops. As well as these swaps, I’d found my own new ones in derelict Victorian gardens or in private woodlands. I decided to start my own, bigger group, called the Galanthus Gala. Now, I have 300 people who attend that and I have a mailing list of 1,500 people. I only send out a bulb catalogue to 450 people – when it comes out it’s a bun-fight because the plants are so rare.

In 2004, a yellow Galanthus plicatus, variety E.A. Bowles, was found at Myddleton House Gardens, near Enfield. Several people were given a bulb but I was the only one who managed to propagate it. In 2004, I had one bulb. By 2008, I had 10, and by 2010 I was up to 100. This year, I sold one bulb on Ebay for £357, the world record for a snowdrop. The previous record was £265, two years ago, for a variety called Flocon de Neige. The prices are high because the plants are so slow-growing.

Security is a big problem. This year the National Trust tagged its snowdrops at Anglesey Abbey in Cambridgeshire. I know people who have opened their gardens and had everything stolen. If I have something new, I keep quiet. I have pulled the heads off flowers to stop people recognising them. I don’t open my garden or nursery. I never let people in. I don’t even tell people where I am. I always give one bulb away to a friend for security so that I can start again if things go missing. But stealing snowdrops is like stealing a Van Gogh. If it’s rare, all the galanthophiles will know who propagated it and where it was stolen from. You could only ever sell it in an ad at the back of a newspaper, if that.

The 17th-century speculative Dutch craze for tulips, known today as tulipmania, reached such levels that in 1633 an entire farmhouse was exchanged for three rare bulbs. A single bulb could serve as a dowry. Saffron, one of the world’s most expensive spices, is derived from the stigma of the saffron crocus, which is grown from a corm. Waitrose sells saffron strands at £3.55 for 0.4g – or £88.75 for 10g.

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