NOTHING heralds the start of spring so much as snowdrops – those dainty white flowers reaching barely 20cm above the ground.
Flowering in winter, when the ground is often still frozen or covered with a layer of snow, the appearance of these bulbous herbaceous plants is celebrated every year by VisitScotland’s Snowdrop Festival.
Now in its seventh year, the festival offers the chance to see 300 varieties of snowdrops in 50 different locations, from castle grounds and country estates, to woodlands and private gardens.
Tomorrow, for one day only, visitors are being invited to see some more unusual varieties of this much-loved plant at Kevock Garden in Lasswade, Midlothian.
The magical hillside garden is the result of 30 years of hard work by owners David and Stella Rankin. Looking out over the North Esk river valley towards Mavisbank House, an Adam mansion, and Rosslyn Chapel, the garden appears to go on for miles.
Forget carpets of white snowdrops such as can be found at the Cambo Estate in Fife or Castle Kennedy in Dumfries and Galloway, here you will find small clumps of galanthus atkinsii, an early snowdrop with grey-green leaves and large flowers, galanthus woronowii, distinguished by its bright green glossy leaves, the long-stemmed, large-flowered S. Arnott variety and allennii with broad grey-green leaves and single flowers.
“We have patches of snowdrops, not carpets,” says Stella, a former English teacher who now works full-time in the garden and associated nursery, Kevock Garden Plants, which stocks rare alpine, bog and woodland plants from all over the world.
For Stella, early spring is the best time of year.
“It’s the promise of everything that’s coming,” she says. “I love the daphnes, the early bulbs.”
As well as snowdrops, visitors will be rewarded by the sight of a garden bursting into life with the scent of daphnes filling the air and early rhododendrons, aconites, scilla and dwarf irises providing a blaze of colour.
However, as she leads the way down the paths that intersect this steep one-acre garden, it becomes clear that every season offers something special.
In summer there will be a riot of colour from the azaleas, while in autumn the garden will appear to be on fire as the leaves turn red, orange and yellow.
“Even in winter there is always something beautiful to look at – the amazing bark of a tree, thorns, cones,” says Stella. “On Christmas Day there were 50 things that had a flower on them.”
The fact the garden is on a slope has allowed the couple to grow a huge range of plants in a small area, with the top of the hill offering well-drained sandy soil while at the bottom, the clay soil means it is permanently wet.
The south-facing bank below the house is good for sun-loving plants, while further down it turns to woodland and boggy land suitable for water marginal plants such as primulas, asobis and trolias.
When they first moved in, they cleared the garden just below the house – which in itself is a work of art, designed in the modernist style by Edinburgh architects Morris and Steedman – and built their first rockery.
This allowed them to indulge their love of alpine plants picked up from their travels in mountainous regions around the world from China to the Andes, New Zealand to the Alps.
Seeing plants growing in their natural habitat has allowed the couple to work out where they should be placed in the garden to get the best results.
“We’re always learning,” says Stella. “It’s really only when you see a plant growing in the wild you understand it wants to be on the water’s edge or it does better under an overhang.”
The nursery grew out of the couple’s love of plants and their reluctance to throw anything away. Interesting weeds, seedlings that had rooted in paths and lawns and branches that had been pruned, were all potted and sold to visitors to the garden.
The business has grown over the years and the couple now also offer a garden design and consultancy service, as well as exhibiting their plants at shows around the country including Gardening Scotland, the Harrogate Flower Show and the Chelsea Flower Show.
The garden is an ever-changing tapestry as the couple are constantly replanting, adding new bulbs, taking down trees that have become too large and oppressive for the space and planting new trees and shrubs for the next generation.
As the tour goes on, Stella rattles out the names of plants that grow in the garden – primula rosea, gunnera, irises, aralia.
Others are just starting to appear through the mulch which the couple make themselves and use everywhere in the garden to prevent the spread of weeds – pulmonaria, peonies, erythronium, trilliums. Everywhere there are what Stella calls “little treasures”.
Stella’s passion for her garden is self-evident and one of the favourite parts of her job is advising clients on planting.
Meanwhile David, a retired professor of Structural Chemistry at the University of Edinburgh, has a more scientific interest in the garden.
“He’s the botanist,” says Stella.
His main interest is in primulas and he is also the one who does all the shows, mocking up designs at the nursery down the road from the house.
Back up beside the house, the tour comes to an end at a line of cold frames which provide shelter for a selection of alpine plants including minute ten-year-old cushion saxifrage plants with tiny rosettes of leaves.
As Stella so succinctly sums up, the garden, which will be open from noon until 3pm tomorrow, is “endlessly fascinating”.
Another private garden opening tomorrow between 1pm and 4pm is Kilbryde Castle in Dunblane. The gardens, which cover 12 acres, are divided into formal, woodland and wild areas, with huges drifts of snowdrops to be found in the latter part.
The following Sunday (10 March), another Dunblane garden will be opening its gates between 10am and 4pm. The Linns is a three-and-a-half acre plot which is home to a specialist collection of snowdrops.
Next weekend (9 and 10 March), visitors to the Hill of Tarvit, a National Trust for Scotland property near Cupar in Fife, are being invited to take part in a snowdrop dig to help spread the plants throughout the 40-acre estate’s woodland.
Meanwhile, other gardens throughout Scotland taking part in the Snowdrop Festival include the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh, Greenbank Garden in Clarkston, Glasgow, Finlaystone Country Estate in Langbank, Renfrewshire, Crathes Castle in Banchory and Duff House in Banff.
• The Snowdrop Festival runs until 17 March. For more information, go to visitscotland.com/snowdrops