Hartley Magazine

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Winter’s ark

Snowdrops are an endangered species now, and as for frost… welcome to the winter wonderland.

I was on my way to visit winter. Real, authentic winter – so the invite said. I wasn’t quite there yet. Big black slugs glided over the sign that read ‘GalanthoArk – 200m’. It pointed to the huge domed greenhouse nestled in the hollow below.

It was the first week of February and I was standing on the crest of a hill, in a t-shirt, armpits wet from the humidity levels that had the slugs in raptures. I tilted into the southerly gale that was trying to rip the puffa jacket, sweater and scarf from my hands.

Bring warm clothes, they’d said. Dress for winter! I was intrigued; winter was something I’d learnt about in college, but never actually felt. The closest I’d been to frost was running my fingers over the inside of the fridge.

Google revealed what ‘winter clobber’ was. The puffa was a snip in a charity shop stuffed with chunky jackets, thick woollies and hats that no one wanted. ‘We’re sending a lot of these up to the northern countries stuck on the other side of the jet,’ the woman on the till told me. ‘They’ve got more need than us.’ She pointed to the puffa mountain. ‘We’re not short.’

‘Never worn one before,’ I said.

Flowers flowed over every bank and knoll…

‘In that case, have a woolly hat on the house.’ She rifled through a huge box, pulling one out by its big red bobble. I frowned at the knitted blue crystals. ‘They’re snowflakes, dear. You youngsters – you’re winter-deprived!’

The last snow fell 20 years ago, when I was six months old. I’ve never seen a weather chart in shades other than yellow, orange or red.

The gale had been blowing for a month. It felt all wrong: warm, balmy air rippling my cheeks, the sun still so low in the sky. Rain had come, too – a lot of rain. Two endless weeks of incessant, flood-making rain was now pooled and sparkling among the roofs of a drowned village in the distance, its inhabitants long since moved to higher, drier homes. I checked my watch: 19ºC.

Heading down to the Ark, I picked my way through the slugmageddon, which was in full tilt. Molluscs – from tiny pink blobs to unmissable black monsters – were everywhere. They gorged like vultures on the last of the flopped, rain-pummelled daffodil blooms. Most had flowered long before Christmas, bursting, confused and premature, into gardens stranded way south of the jet stream. Their drawn, weak, sappy stems were no match for non-stop ‘winter’ storms as sultry as a summer’s day. Fewer daffs bloomed each year, fatal rots thriving in the endless warm and wet.

There was a flash of white in the lank, never-stops-growing grass. I eyeballed the slug-ravaged flower – a few green-tipped petals left intact, a rasping pink scavenger hidden within. This whole bank would once have been covered in carpets of them… when winter happened outdoors.

Indoors, in the greenhouse lobby, I started to cook, along with the rest of the group – gardening writers eager for a scoop on a season we had never known. I pushed the bobble hat from my clammy forehead, eyeing the steamed-up doors behind the Keeper of the Ark. ‘Welcome to the GalanthoArk – and to winter!’ That again. Wind roared over the dome.

Snowdrops survived – thanks to the galanthosaviours.

A brass plate listed various benefactors supporting the Ark’s inception. One name, a major pharmaceutical company, was in gold. ‘Some of you are, erm, overheating, so let’s go inside, where you’ll be glad of the woollies.’ The misted doors parted.

The chilled, honey-scented air filled our lungs, triggering gasps of amazement. I checked the temperature: 6ºC. ‘Welcome to real winter!’ boomed the Keeper. Not again. ‘Have a good look around, and then I’ll explain more about the Ark’s work. Oh, and be careful on the paths – there’s still some frost about in spots out of the sun.’

I waved my fingers through the cold, still air, blowing – for the first time – a plume of white mist over them. So this is what winter feels like! A hush fell as we wandered out along the paths criss-crossing the bowl-shaped, living amphitheatre mirroring the dome above.

Dense sheets of coy, white and yellow-tinged flowers flowed over every bank and knoll. Snowdrops. Not a mollusc in sight, just perfect, glistening, unsullied snowdrops. Some pushed up through short grass, others parted a thick carpet of leaf mould. Each swathe of blooms were labelled. I studied one: Galanthus nivalis/clone 2022.59a.

I’d read how snowdrops had started failing, big time, in 2022. Two warming decades later, they were almost gone, outcasts from an overheating, winterless world. It was gardeners who had saved them, by keeping them in their fridges, mimicking bygone winters as best they could. Galanthosaviours, they’d called them.

Was I imagining it, or were the flowers opening as I watched? Bumblebees began to fly, low and erratic, between the welcoming blooms. The honeyed air felt warmer. I checked: 11ºC. Unzipping my puffa, I joined the rosy-cheeked circle gathered in the centre of the Ark, our floral audience, petals splayed, all around us.

To recreate winter, explained the Keeper, a soil-cooling system was needed alongside the air conditioning. Light levels weren’t so critical, but temperature was everything. Bumbles bounced noisily between our knees. Frost was possible due to the special glass that pulled radiant heat from the dome at night, crisping the ground.

‘It’s just magical in here during a full moon,’ the Keeper said, wistfully. ‘Rime frost is proving more of a challenge – but we’re working on it. And we’re also working on this.’ They held up a small phial. ‘Who’s heard of galantamine?’

We owe the galanthosaviours a huge debt. Galantamine, a drug extracted from the bulbs and flowers of snowdrops, had long been used to treat the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. When snowdrops began dying out, supplies of galantamine ran low. To bring the snowdrops back, we had to bring winter back, too. All around us were the healthy, multiplying descendants of those original fridge-chilled flowers – refugees from a volatile, warming world.

No one wanted to leave the Ark; winter was addictive. The gale howled on; the sky scoured cloudless as the sun dipped away. ‘Look,’ said the Keeper. ‘Why don’t we go outside for a while and warm up? Then, if any of you want to, you can come back in later. It’ll be clear tonight, and perfect for a ground frost.’

I shrugged off my clobber and stepped back out into a warm, tempestuous, unreal winter. I couldn’t wait for my first real frost.

Text and images © John Walker

Find John on Twitter @earthFgardener