2019 Guest Lecture
Galanthus in the Wild by Tom Mitchell
Tom’s talk tries to convey the excitement, frustration, joy and occasional misery of travel in some of the world’s most beautiful places, in pursuit of some of the world’s most beautiful plants, invariably located on some of the world’s worst roads. There are at least 23 snowdrop species and, in a short talk, it is impossible to cover them all, so he plans to focus on a handful of species that are not well known in cultivation, but not difficult to grow, once their wild habitats are understood.
The talk will start in southern Turkey, with two relatives of the familiar G. elwesii - G. cilicicus and G. peshmenii - endemics that grow on limestone rocks in just a few valleys and offshore islands. He will introduce the fall-flowering G. reginae-olgae, from Greece and Italy. He will describe a trip to Iran to see G. transcaucasicus, almost unknown in cultivation, and a dinner involving boiled sheep’s head. On a trip to Abkhazia, a country in the Caucasus whose existence the USA does not recognize (it’s really there, he insists), he saw and photographed G. panjutinii, the most recently described species in the genus, and he will tell the story of its rediscovery and the conservation disaster that accompanied it. Finally, he will describe the amazing snowdrop melting pot of NW Turkey, where the ranges of G. plicatus, G. gracilis, G. trojanus, G. nivalis, G. samothracicus and a new, undescribed species meet, the result being some very confused and very beautiful snowdrops.
Tom is an unabashed proselytizer for snowdrop species and hopes that his talk will encourage a few more galanthophiles to experiment with growing wild species, as well as hybrid cultivars, in their gardens.
Tom’s first love was biology, which he studied at Cambridge University in England as an undergraduate, after which he tried to explain a small aspect of species diversity in a tropical rain forest in Brunei, on the island of Borneo, for his PhD. He failed, of course - his PhD supervisor memorably quipped that his biggest discovery was that, as trees get taller, they also get wider - but has been besotted by the richness of life on earth ever since.
Slightly disenchanted with academia, he was seduced by the dark side and spent the next fifteen years as a banker, working for J.P. Morgan and the Royal Bank of Scotland. Lehman Brothers failed about a month after he quit but he says it wasn’t entirely his fault.
Having been driven around the bend selling snake oil to snakes, he has been almost normal ever since, except on nights with a full moon. He tried to set up a nursery, Evolution Plants, which at one time had the widest range of unsaleable plants available anywhere in the world. When that didn’t work out he decided, having failed as a biologist, banker and businessman, to try his luck as a bum, a snowdrop bum, perhaps the only one in the world.
For the last four years he has travelled throughout the natural range of the genus Galanthus, seen and photographed every described species of snowdrop (and one not yet described) in flower and had some interesting adventures in places as varied as Iran, Russia, Armenia, Georgia, Turkey and Greece. His obsession with snowdrops shows no sign of abating.