Meet 'Mr Snowdrop', Joe Sharman
Known to galanthophiles the world over as the snowdrop grower with the Midas touch, the Monksilver Nursery owner came to wider acclaim when his snowdrop struck gold on eBay. Words by Widget Finn, images by Charlie Hopkinson
Joe Sharman suggests meeting at Monksilver, his nursery near Cambridge. It proves difficult to find, which I later discover is deliberate. The first two locals I ask have never heard of the nursery, the third advises: “Look out for a gap in the hedge.” Through the gap, up a track and in a circle of rough grass we sit in the sun on rickety white plastic chairs. Behind us a tall swathe of meadow grass and wild honeysuckle tumble through the hedge.
It is high summer, but Joe Sharman is talking snowdrops. “I established Monksilver Nursery in 1989,” he says. “But snowdrops were just a sideline while I concentrated on developing the rarer herbaceous plants. Then the herbaceous market went into decline and I decided to focus on snowdrops.”
The recent explosion of interest in snowdrops has been compared to the tulip mania that hit the Netherlands in the 17th century, when rare tulip bulbs cost more than a small house. The current vogue is partly down to Joe himself, who hit the headlines in 2015 when his Galanthus plicatus ‘Golden Fleece’ was sold on eBay for £1,390.
Over the past 15 years he has been a major influence in expanding the snowdrop market and now every weekend from mid January to mid-March snowdrop gardens across the country open to the public. Like many plantsmen, his horticultural roots go back to his childhood. He often stayed with his grandmother and aunt who were very keen gardeners. “I was already gardening aged four, and still grow Kniphofia ‘Atlanta’, which was my favourite as a child.”
Joe went to Writtle College in 1981. “It was the only practical horticultural course at the time. Afterwards I spent nine years as a journeyman, working in a nursery in California, then at Hillier, Bernhards in Rugby and Langthorns. My interest switched from trees and shrubs to herbaceous plants where the lead time is shorter.” Douglas Dawson, a professional gardener, and photographer Stephen Passler became his mentors. “They could see I was young and keen, and they were very generous, introducing me to all the important nurseries with interesting stock.”
When Joe established Monksilver Nursery he quickly built a reputation for propagating and supplying unusual plants. He claims to be the first nursery, in 1991, to hold plant sales that included other specialist growers, and established a format that has been copied widely by other nurseries, including Great Dixter.
But despite a successful mail-order business his high-value herbaceous plants were not making money – which is when snowdrops took over. Joe’s pivotal snowdrop moment came in 1986 with a phone call from his mother Esther who had spotted a yellow flower while she was walking on Wandlebury Ring near Cambridge. “Snowdrops are normally white and green, and the rare yellow ones were always weak. But this example was large and vigorous.”
Read our feature on yellow snowdrops.
Bill Clarke, Wandlebury’s warden, gave Joe a plant, kept one for himself and another went to Cambridge University Botanic Gardens. The rest were sold for £1,000, about £25 each, to a Dutch bulb company – and none survived.
When Joe’s bulb, named Galanthus plicatus ‘Wendy’s Gold’ after the warden’s wife, produced a small clump he put a photo in the RHS magazine The Garden and was overwhelmed with the response, which included an invitation to a very select snowdrop swapping club. “Around 20 galanthophiles had lunches during the season, led by Primrose Warburg, the formidable doyenne of snowdrops. I was only 27 and highly nervous of joining these very experienced gardeners.”
It was a small and intense world, but as Joe gained knowledge and developed a collection of snowdrops he felt they deserved a wider audience. In 1997 he started an annual Galanthus Gala that helped to kick start the market, and now every February galanthomania reaches fever pitch as specialist nurseries and private individuals chase sought-after specimens.
Joe is an astute businessman, spotting early on the potential of selling rare snowdrops on eBay. In 2011 his first yellow snowdrop, fetched a (then) record £747. Joe has subsquently broken records, selling a yellow snowdrop for £1,850 in 2022. He explains that the high prices reflect the time these new cultivars take to develop. “I was the first person to breed specific cultivars. I aimed to develop a yellow snowdrop but it takes over 18 years from the first seed to having enough stock to sell – so it’s lucky I started so young.”
He won’t predict how long the snowdrop craze will last but he’s turning his attention back to the main herbaceous nursery while focussing on the expanding snowdrop market in Europe. His unusual cultivars will always have customers, but plant theft is on the increase. With his rarer snowdrops valued at £500 a bulb, he guards them ruthlessly, even pulling off the heads so they can’t be identified. Monksilver Nursery may be hard to find, but his stock of valuable snowdrops – in another location – is even more carefully hidden.
Tel 01954 251555, www.monksilvernursery.co.uk
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