Monday, 7 February 2011


G. 'Bertram Anderson'
On Sunday we visited the Chelsea Physic Garden, a delightful anachronism founded in 1675 and kept alive artificially by its wealthy benefactors, like a rare specimen being shipped from its point of origin across the oceans of time in a wardian case. They were celebrating a Snowdrop Day, and so we were invited to explore their collection and experience the world of the galanthophile (or galanthomane, or galanthologist). Nearly 100 different species, varieties and cultivars of snowdrop were scattered through the gardens. Armed with a little explanatory leaflet, we hunted them down and examined them.

G. 'Alison Hilary'
Galanthus is, of course, only one plant genus among thousands. (There were a handful of Leucojum species on display as well, but only to illustrate the vast difference between snowdrops and snowflakes.) The flowers emerge briefly in winter, and rely more on scent than on bright colours to attract pollinating insects. Yet this unremarkable, delicate little thing has its passionate followers, who eschew the gaudy, obvious attractions of all other plants. The standard work for these people is Matt Bishop's book Snowdrops: A Monograph of Cultivated Galanthus (Griffin Press, 2006), which has 364 pages and describes more than 500 different cultivars down to the tiniest detail. Five hundred!

G. 'Eliot Hodgkin'
The distinctions between different snowdrops are indeed subtle. The shape and colour of the leaves vary somewhat, as do are the distribution of the tepals, their markings, and the shade of the ovary. Among the highlights we were shown, we found a few favourites, among them 'Mrs Thompson', but it was clear we'd stumbled upon a subset of a subset of specialization that would take many years to master.

There is something terrifying about studying the very small in great detail. In order to appreciate the minuscule differences between snowdrops, you have to become very small yourself, observe them on their own terms, and reduce yourself, in your mind, to their size. Something like nausea accompanies the disparities of scale that become apparent when you do this. If the broad plane representing the possibilities of human knowledge weren't already intimidatingly vast, imagine how much bigger it all must seem from a snowdrop's perspective. The 500 cultivars of snowdrop, each with its own name, its own characteristics and its own beauty, give an idea of the dizzying wealth of detail to be found below most people's perspective. Zoom in on one tiny facet of human knowledge, and we find a fractal universe of equal complexity buried inside it, confounding any bold hope of gaining a comprehensive grasp of even a small part of the world around us. Even our most celebrated polymaths seem ignorant fools when viewed against this backdrop.

G. plicatus 'Sophie North'
To reassure and bolster myself against the agoraphobia of the knowable, my strategy has always been to take sweeping strides across the factual terrain, contenting myself to know a little bit about science (the dramatic stuff mainly), a very broad outline of history, an idea or two about music, a smattering of geography, etc. I am able only to generalize and summarize, and to make fleeting observations, lazy assumptions and crass judgments.

But I cannot help but admire the enthusiast who has the patience and humility to submit to one specialism. Even the self-absorbed geek, whose encyclopedic knowledge of a fictional universe robs them of social skills in the real one, has an integrity about the way they acquire knowledge, which I lack. Short-sightedness is a natural human characteristic. So is arrogance.

At the exit, the Chelsea Physic Garden were selling individual snowdrops in pots for prices ranging from £3 to £30 for the rarer specimens. We learned that a single bulb had last year changed hands for £350. But over the river, for free in Battersea Park, we saw hundreds of them growing in swathes.

G. 'Mrs Thompson'

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