I am not a natural skier. In fact, I’m no kind of skier at all. Years of bareback gardening have made the posture well nigh impossible to hold. This presents one’s hosts with a terrifying prospect the aimless guest drowning in an ocean of avant , pendant and après ski. I am, however, a natural naturalist, more than happy to root about the lower slopes and valley bottoms as my friends take in the glories of the Savoie through tinted plastic and Balaclava and at 60mph. In a long career of bunking off Games, these mountain forays are the only times I feel I’ve held the moral, ahem, high ground. It was on one such excursion that I had my first wild sighting of the alpine snowbell, Soldanella alpina. It was growing on a valley floor a morning’s walk from Courchevel, in surprisingly large colonies for such a tiny treasure. Although spring had scarcely arrived, it was already struggling into bloom, performing its famous trick of melting its way through the slushy snow.
A genus of about 10 species in the Primula family, Soldanella is found across Europe’s peaks from the Alps to the Balkans. Wherever it grows, the snowbell’s flowering is something of an event. Not only is it the mountain man’s herald of spring, or at least of a thaw; it is also a plant of spellbinding charm. It makes a tuft of spoon shaped leaves, their glossy blades no larger than the nail of a little finger, or a soldo, the small Italian coin from which its Latin name derives. Above them rise its swan necked flowers, finely fringed fairy bells that push away at snow and ice sometimes for months before opening in shades of lilac and mauve. You can imagine my delight on encountering this plant not only in its habitat, but at its snowbound moment critique. Here was a true alpine beauty. How far it was from the grossly over-rated and oversung edelweiss, a plant that’s about as fetching as a flannelette nightie and which has the dubious distinction of having been Hitler’s favourite flower (why did no one tell the von Trapps?).
Although this was my first wild sighting of snowbells, I’d done my damnedest to grow them several times before and each time failed with utter certainty and assurance. As I studied these specimens in habitat, I realized I’d been too in awe of their Lilliputian looks, reading too many books, making too much fuss. I had cosseted them under cover in pots filled with compost that was faster draining than a shot glass. My new found troupe of chalet girls needed none of that: they were cold and exposed; their feet were stuck in wet, peaty turf; they had stiff competition from other alpine beauties; they were loving it. There was only one thing wrong with them: I had to leave them there. Last year, I resolved to practise my skiing lesson here in the garden. From alpine specialists Edrom Nurseries in Berwickshire (www.edromnurseries.co.uk) I ordered some plants of Soldanella Spring Symphony, Edroms own superbly vigorous selection, with large flowers in luminous lavender. I planted them with as little ado as possible in gritty acid pockets on a semi-shaded bank next to Hepaticas, species of Cyclamen and other diminutive harbingers of spring. They have waxed mightily, all through the wet gloom and unseasonable heat and in the absence of a single snowflake. Now, their first flowers are unfurling.
Although they’re just as special as they were that day when I went off-piste, the point, clearly, is not to treat them as if they were anything special. They are simply exquisite additions to a type of woodland fringe or cool rock or alpine sink gardening that many of us have been enjoying all along. ‘Where are the snows of yesteryear?’ I don’t care the snowbells, at last, are here.
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