Winter Flowers: Snowdrops

Snowdrop_Betsy_Collage

The porcelain perfection of the snowdrop etched with green is the zeitgeist of winter thawing to spring. Its bravery in breaking through the cold earth, its promise of spring, lures admirers out in freezing weather. Most simply enjoy the white sheets of flowers carpeting the ground. Some study the miniscule markings of green, yellow, and white in hopes of discovering a new variety. The most definite reference Snowdrops by Matt Bishop, Aaron Davis, and John Grimshaw (2001) boasts over 200 snowdrop varieties, some of which fetch large sums for a single bulb.

Galanthus nivalis and G. elwesii are the two most commonly cultivated species, with G. plicatus featuring here and there. Galanthus nivalis naturalizes well, forming those white drifts that have become a wintertime ritual in the Northern Hemisphere. Its leaves and flowers are smaller proportioned than those of G. elwesii, a giant by all snowdrop standards. Galanthus elwesii have beautiful blue-green leaves and bold markings on the inner parts of its flowers. Less common species include the bright green-leafed G. woronowii and autumn flowering G. reginae-olgae. Snowdrops do hybridize with each other, yielding progeny of varying vigor and traits that make galanthophilia, the love of snowdrops, a never ending obsession. Galanthophilia can escalate to feverish heights – fingers twitch, knees bend, eyeballs flicker without persuasion at the sight of snowdrops naturalized in churchyards, coppiced woodlands, or old gardens. The temptation to discover a novel snowdrop, one with distinguishable markings like a tattoo, is ever persistent, and indeed a rare snowdrop can easily fetch a princely sum as high as 500 dollars per bulb.

The green markings in the inner segments of snowdrops (sometimes on the outer parts too) are like tattoos.
The green markings in the inner segments of snowdrops (sometimes on the outer parts too) are like tattoos.

As long as fertile soil, good drainage, and adequate light are provided, snowdrops are not particular about their conditions. They do need good light during their growing season – and it is not in shortage when deciduous trees are still denuded in wintertime. Good companion plants are crocuses, cyclamen, and winter aconites. Hellebores are permissible as long as their old foliage does not compete with snowdrops emerging and growing.

Left: Asplenium scolopendrium (hart fern) and snowdrops at Painswick Rocco Garden; Right: Fallen camellia petals highlight snowdrops.
Left: Asplenium scolopendrium (hart fern) and snowdrops at Painswick Rocco Garden; Right: Fallen camellia petals highlight snowdrops.

Propagation is either through division (‘in the green’) or twin-scaling. The practice of moving ‘snowdrops in the green’ is controversial – some people still stand by it while others discourage it, preferring to wait until the foliage begins to die down.  Lifting snowdrops in the green risks damaging roots, which can be detrimental for future growth. If one elects to move snowdrops in the green, minimize root disturbance and be prompt about watering after planting in a well-situated location. Ideally late May to early June is best for transplanting dormant bulbs, and careful labeling will prevent identification mishaps and fruitless searches at a time when the garden is bursting with plants. Twin-scaling induces young bulbs to form from meristematic tissue of ‘damaged bulbs’. This technique is not for the impatient or inexperienced, and those wanting to increase stocks of rare and desirable selections have gone this route (after much practice of course!).

~Eric

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