Cambridgeshire’s ‘King of Snowdrops’ explains mysterious world of Galanthomania after single bulb sells on eBay for £1,850
In the elite world of snowdrop collectors, Joe Sharman from Cottenham-based Monksilver Nursery is king.
He has just scored a new record for the most expensive snowdrop bulb ever with an eBay sale of his latest creation, a variety of snowdrop called Golden Tears.
It was the result of 18 years of hard work, stemming from an idea about trying to create combinations of patterns and colours never seen on the flowers before. And when he succeeded, the collectors, called galanthophiles, came out in force.
“It is a small and very dedicated world, snowdrop collecting,” says Joe.
“There’s a very keen group of people who have been seriously into snowdrops for a long time. And these plants at these kinds of prices just don’t appeal to everyone. Most people would think that a snowdrop at £10 was expensive. But these people have got to the point of galanthophilia where they want the latest, rarest thing. Generally they are not just people who have money. We have everyone from Michael Heseltine, to plumbers, electricians, ex-coal miners – they’re just ordinary people who have just got this passion and are prepared to spend a bit of money.
“There’s a guy who treats himself to one expensive snowdrop every year. I think people love snowdrops because they’re so positive and cheerful.
“Even in the worst of weather, you can be sure the snowdrops will come up and it’s like that first really good sign of spring.”
When he put the Golden Tears bulb up for sale he knew there would be a lot of interest, but not of this scale. “It’s absolutely unbelievable,” he says.
The bulb – full name Galanthus plicatus or “Golden Tears” – was from the same variety as “Golden Fleece”, which took 18 years to develop and was sold on eBay for £1,390 in 2015.
Mr Sharman has been growing and breeding snowdrops for 35 years and selling rare varieties on eBay for 15 years.
The eBay listing read: “A narrow-flowered yellow pterugiform with a very large mark and bright yellow ovary. Very beautiful and distinct. Quite different from Golden Fleece. Exceptionally vigorous. 25cm.”
Joe was watching the auction in Germany with friends when a sudden burst of bids pushed up the price to more than £1,800.
He says: “We had the eBay screen projected onto a wall and normally you get a little flurry of bids at the beginning and then it all goes quiet, which is what happened. Then the screen went back so we checked back into the site and found 540 people watching the auction. Suddenly the amount bid jumped up to £1,430, I think, and then it just pinged right up to £1,850.”
The new variety has special qualities that interested the collectors. He explains: “Golden Fleece is a fairly pale yellow, and the outer petals reflex. So it looks quite distinct. With this new one, it’s a much darker yellow and the petals do not reflex; they face straight down. And this character is known as pterugiform. The leaves have got a slightly yellowish cast to them. They have a very thin flower stalk that is a yellowy green, the ovary is yellow, and then all the markings in the flower, which are normally dark green, are yellowy-green or yellow.”
The work that went into creating the Golden Tears snowdrop was worth much more than that price, however. For anyone who wants to breed snowdrops, it is always going to be a long process.
Joe explains: “I have quite a collection of snowdrops and I worked out all the different combinations of patterns and colours on them that have occurred, and the combinations that have not yet appeared. Then I deliberately set about trying to breed those patterns and colours that hadn’t actually occurred already.”
He produced the Golden Fleece variety in 2015 by crossing two parents together, and waiting five years for them to flower.
He says: “Then you get one plant which you then cross again with a third parent. I waited another five years for that to flower, so that’s 10 years. And then I have one single bulb with the right characteristics. To make sure I have enough to sell there’s a process where you chop up your one bulb and in four years time you get 20 or 30 bulbs, and then you chop those up. By the time you get to a second round of four years, you’ve got enough to sell. That’s why it takes 18 years.”
The parentage of the Golden Fleece variety is the same as Golden Tears.
“They’re the same crosses, but I got a lot more seedlings, which gave me more potential for choosing nice ones.” says Joe. “I was unbelievably excited when it worked. I start with an idea of what I might achieve, but until you actually try it and then it flowers for the first time, you don’t know if it has worked. You’re going, ‘Oh my God, I’ve actually done it’.
“It is such a satisfying feeling. I’ve got lots of pots of seedlings coming on and it’s always the first place I go to every morning just looking at them opening up to see if there’s anything interesting and new in there.
“Golden Tears isn’t the only colour pattern I’m aiming for. I’ve got lots of other things I’m going for and some of them I’ve achieved and that they’re in the process of being chopped up and propagated. Some of them are still just seedlings and not flowers and they’re just waiting and I’m being patient and going every day to watch them open and see what turns up.”
However, Joe reckons he would still be enthralled by snowdrops even if there was no money to be made.
“Galanthomania” – an obsession with snowdrops – began in the 1980s. The season lasts just a few weeks in winter. Mr Sharman first developed his own passion for the flower after a chance discovery of a rare type of snowdrop in Wandlebury Ring by his mother and her friend while they were out walking.
“I got into it, because I’m a mad keen plantsman. I started gardening at about four years old, encouraged by an aunt and a grandmother. What really pushed me forward was being part of the finding of one called Wendy’s Gold in 1985,” he says.
“My mother and one of her friends were walking there and they spotted a clump of yellow snowdrops and my mother knew I was mad keen about anything a bit different so she phoned me up and told me about it.
“When I went to see this clump of yellow snowdrops at Wandlebury I realised what an exciting find it was. I persuaded the warden to give me a bulb. He kept one and one went to the Botanic Garden in Cambridge, and then the rest of the clump sold for £1,000 to the Dutch Bulb Company. They had a rather tragic accident and lost the lot, which meant that the only bulbs remaining were the ones that Bill and I had and the ones at the Botanic Garden. I put the photograph of this plant, Wendy’s Gold, into the RHS magazine, The Garden, and I got lots of people interested in it, phoning and writing to me.”
On the back of this, Mr Sharman started being invited to “snowdrop lunches” where he met with serious collectors who helped him build his own collection and in return he gave them Wendy’s Gold. From there he began organising events and working with Anglesey Abbey before leaving the event side and concentrating on his nursery.
“It’s really not about the money,” he says. “I think if there was no money, I’d still be doing this because I’m just excited to create new stuff. The one that I have never managed to create, which I’m working on, has the pterugiform character with all six petals having a big green mark on the outside and being of equal length. That character does not exist in a double. So I’m working really, really hard to try and be the first to create a double flower snowdrop with that character set.”