Snowdrops (Galanthus sp.)

Galanthus nivalis

There is one flower above all that signals the beginning of the new gardening year and the promise of great things to come. In the garden here at Waverley some varieties of snowdrops (Galanthus) begin to start to flower in early in December with others flowering right through the winter months and into March.

All snowdrops prefer cool, moist conditions in the spring followed by a dry summer dormancy in the shade. Planted in the right conditions about 4-5 inches deep, snowdrops seem to love the growing conditions here in Warwickshire.

Often seen as a symbol of purity and chastity these delicate looking flowers are really tough pushing through the winter soil and emerging like white pearls. Alternative names include ‘Fair maids of February’ and Candlemas Bells however the French name of Perce-Neige (snow piercers) seems particularly apt.

The love of these tiny flowers I think must run in the family with Carol’s uncle, snowdrop expert Colin Mason of Fieldgate Snowdrops, providing us with a number of varieties and species that have now established throughout the garden. It is a lovely thing that your individual garden plants can remind you so vividly of friends and relatives and the times that you have spent together.

Galanthus elwesii
Galanthus elwesii

Snowdrops and Snowflakes

Snowdrops (Galanthus) and Snowflakes (Leucojum) are closely related species. Whereas as Snowflakes have six equally sized petals, Snowdrops have three larger outer petals surrounding three smaller inner petals typically marked with green.

In addition to the snowdrops we have also been increasing the number of summer snowflakes (Leucojum aestivum) that we have around the Honey Pot Flowers garden. These flower much later (May to June) and because of their longer stems prove much more useful as cut flowers than the shorter snowdrops.

Summer Snowflake (Leucojum aestivum)
Summer Snowflake (Leucojum aestivum)

Leaf morphology

The arrangement of the paired leaves at the base of the snowdrop plant is helpful in identifying the different species. For example, in the common snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) the two leaves are pressed flat together (applanate) whilst in Galanthus elwesii one leaf is clasped around the other (supervolute).

Galanthus nivalis leaf morphology (applanate)
Galanthus nivalis basal leaf morphology (applanate)
Galanthus elwesii leaf morphology (supervolute)
Galanthus elwesii basal leaf morphology (supervolute)

Propagation

We find, if you have patience, that the snowdrops bulk up very effectively throughout the garden with little effort on our part. When the clumps get too dense we lift them when they are ‘in the green’, gently separate the bulbs and distribute them more widely throughout the garden. In particular we have started to develop a snowdrop walk through the copse at the north end of the garden providing a fresh splash of white on dull February days.

It is also possible to bulk up plants more rapidly through chipping, twinscaling and micropropogation. Galanthophile Colin Mason’s article on Galanthomania, Chipping and Twinscaling explores this in more detail.

Galanthus elwesii (Geoffrey Owen)
Galanthus elwesii (Geoffrey Owen)

Use as cut flowers

If you believe in such things it is worth noting some of the common folklore around snowdrops. In her book Snowdrops , Gail Harland reports that there is a country belief that it is unlucky to decorate a room with cut snowdrops and that these should not be brought into one’s house until after Candlemas Day (2 February).

Whereas this mythology, and the wider meaning associated with giving particular flowers (floriography), are less widely understood these days, it is worth bearing these aspects in mind when preparing bouquets and giving flowers. A bouquet of flowers, buttonhole or gift of flowers with inherent meaning is always a nice touch.

The short stem length of snowdrops really only makes them suitable for small posies and arrangements. We have found that they make charming place settings for dinner parties in tiny clear glass vases (but only after the 2 February of course!).

Snowdrop Table Place Setting
Snowdrop Table Place Setting

Hardy Perennial Bulb

Family: Amaryllidaceae (ref: Royal Horticultural Society)

Floriography: Purity and innocence

Origin: The common snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) has a distribution from the Pyrenees to Balkans however there are also some 20 species of Galanthus in total occurring in a wide variety of habitats.

Further reading

“Snowdrop” by Gail Harland (ISBN 978-1-78023-492-2) – an interesting account about the biology of snowdrops, collecting and their appearance in poetry, art and music.

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