During the bleak winter months, when we can no longer pursue our favorite pastime, depression becomes rife. You can spend only so long comfortably ensconced in an armchair perusing nursery catalogs and ordering next year’s seeds before being overwhelmed by the desire to see and touch real plants. Snowdrops offer salvation. To discover a plant that is at its peak when all else is dormant (and in many cases totally subterranean) is an uplifting experience. And because of the cyclical nature of gardening, it is one that we can look forward to every year—a firm reassurance that spring is on the way.
Who doesn’t love snowdrops? The sight of their gray-green shoots pushing through the sleeping earth is all it takes to banish dejection. The swordlike leaves pierce the soil, each one curiously swollen in its middle, pregnant with its precious bud. The stems lengthen, divide, and launch the flower, which is upright at first then gently leaning until it acquires its typical bell-like shape, suspended on an arching, hair-thin stem. As the days go by, new flowers emerge and each flower swells so that the area of white within a planting increases steadily.
Galanthus nivalis is the first choice for a wild, woodland planting. In Great Britain, it is this species that adorns our woods and ditches. Although our climate is mild, G. nivalis is hardy to USDA Zone 3, as are many of the other most popular species and varieties. Populations grow by bulbs dividing spontaneously, and by seed. As the flowers fade, the stems lengthen, the ovary fattens and is brought down by its own increased weight until it is level with the earth. In this way, year on year, colonies increase and expand. Although the double variety, Galanthus nivalis ‘Flore Pleno’, increases fast and is exquisite with its multilayered white petticoats edged in green, it lacks the simple elegance of the single form.
There are other appealing snowdrops that are both easy to cultivate and that increase well. Galanthus ‘Atkinsii” is a large, robust snowdrop with long flared petals. Where I garden in Devon (the equivalent of a warm USDA Zone 8), it appears early in the year, often during January and sometimes through snow. Although it will colonize quickly of its own volition, if you have a plan for it, you can dig it up as it fades, knock the soil from the bulbs, and replant them separately a few inches apart and four to six inches deep. Give each bulb a ration of good, humusy compost, preferably mixed with leaf mold. (This is a prescription that suits all snowdrops.) Vary the distances between the bulbs to ensure a random, natural look. Within a short space of time, big drifts can result. Sue Staines, who gardens with her husband Wal at Glenn Chantry (where the photographs for this article were taken), has what she describes as a “river of white” that runs from the house to the front gate, composed entirely of G. ‘Atkinsii’. Sue’s advice to anyone who is starting a collection is to plant one of the easier and more prolific varieties first to see how well it will do in the conditions their garden has to offer before investing large sums for rarer varieties. (And some of the choicer varieties can command as much as ?40/$60 per bulb.) This is not a question of having to make do with second best, however—quite a number of the classic varieties are not prohibitively expensive and will multiply rapidly.
One of these easy classics is G. ‘S. Arnott,” which blooms a little later than G. ‘Atkinsii’, opening its perfect rounded flowers in February. It is a G. nivids seedling, and as such loves heavy damp soils, in which it will increase rapidly. It was developed by the famous Walter Butt, who planted it in his garden at Chalford in Gloucestershire. Later in its life the garden was bought by Brigadier and Mrs. Mathias, who eventually founded the Giant Snowdrop Company. Not only did they make available to the public the snowdrops from the garden, which had increased into enormous clumps over the years, but they also collected and increased every good snowdrop they could find. It is thanks to them that many old and rare varieties were propagated and shared.
Galanthus ‘Magnet” is another variety recommended for beginners, although it is equally popular with the snowdrop cognoscenti. It is a strong grower of medium height with a very long pedicel that allows the flower to move around gracefully in the breeze. It may look fragile, but its looks belie its incredible tenacity.
HOW AND WHERE TO GROW SNOWDROPS
There are snowdrops to suit a wide range of cultural and climatic conditions. Galanthus nivalis varieties, which constitute the majority of cultivated snowdrops, luxuriate in damp winter conditions but prefer to be drier during the summer. A site in heavy soil among the roots of deciduous trees suits them perfectly. Not everyone has the luxury of space for a separate spring, woodland garden, but even one tree can provide a perfect environment for clumps of snowdrops planted through drifts of later-blooming shade-lovers. You don’t even need a tree—Sue Staines, for example, grows many of her special snowdrops in the middle of broad island beds among big clumps of perennials. In the winter, when the herbaceous plants are absent, the snowdrops can be viewed clearly. Then, in the summer, the perennials lend cool shelter to the now-dormant snowdrops. A good moisture-retaining mulch is helpful in this kind of situation.
Some snowdrops are from much warmer climes and are happy in a sunny site. One of the first snowdrops to flower, G. elwesii has broad, glaucous leaves that clasp the flower stem and inner petals marked with green. Although it comes from Turkey, it is perfectly tough and will stand winter temperatures as low as -15°F (USDA Zone 5a). Galanthus elwesii var. whittallii is one of its best forms, with especially green underskirts. Also happy in sun is G. gracilis (formerly G. graecus), a small snowdrop with characteristically twisted leaves.
Facts & Figures
Snowdrops (Galanthus spp.)
TYPE OF PLANT: hardy bulb FAMILY: Amaryllidaceae [amaryllis family] ORIGINS: western Europe to Iranian Caucasus and Caspian Sea HARDINESS: USDA Zones 3–9 (most species); Sunset Zones 1–9, 14–17, 31–45 HEIGHT: 4–12 in. LEAVES: paired, strap-shaped, narrow to broad, bright green to glaucous FLOWERS: solitary, borne on short pedicel, with six unequal perianth segments; outer segments longer, pure white; inner segments much shorter, marked green; usually nodding BLOOM PERIOD: midwinter-early spring, depending on climate and variety SOIL: somewhat heavy, humus-rich, moisture-retentive, well-drained EXPOSURE: partial shade (most varieties); G. elwesii and G. gracilis will grow in full sun WATERING: plentiful moisture needed during growth period in winter and spring; some dryness tolerated in summer PLANTING TIME: early fall FEEDING: annual mulch of leaf mold or compost PROPAGATION: by division immediately after flowering PROBLEMS: none serious
9 Favorite Snowdrops
1. Galanthus nivalis ‘S. Arnott’. Perfect rounded petals. 6 inches. Increases well.
2. Galanthus ‘Blewbury Tart’. Its upward-facing flowers are unlike any other snowdrop. Charming.
3. Galanthus nivalis ‘Viridapicis’. A striking, easily grown snowdrop that has strong solid green markings on the outer segments.
4. Galanthus ‘Atkinsii’. An old cultivar with an established pedigree as a garden plant.
5. Galanthus nivalis ‘Walrus’. According to snowdrop expert Matt Bishop, “one of the great eccentrics of the snowdrop world
.” 6. Galanthus ‘John Gray’. A classic-one of the biggest of all snowdrops. Poised and elegant.
7. Galanthus plicatus subsp. byzantinus ‘Trym’. A cult hybrid whose outer petals form a “Chinese pagoda” around the inner petals.
8. Galanthus ‘Jacquenetta’. Neat and very double. One of the Greatorex doubles, all very similar to the untrained eye.
9. Galanthus nivalis ‘Sandersil’. The ovary, inner markings, and pedicel are all yellow. Found originally in Northumberland.
Opinions vary about how to associate snowdrops with other plants, but most gardeners agree they do not lend themselves to formal schemes—straight lines are definitely out—and that they should be planted en masse. Here are some suggestions for successful combinations.
More vigorous varieties can hold their own in naturalistic plantings with grassy subjects like Carex comans or Stipa tenuissima planted around shrubs like the red-stemmed Cornusalba or the fiery, twiggy Comus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’.
The pristine whiteness of all snowdrops makes a telling contrast to any dark-leaved plant. The usual favorite is black mondo grass. Ophiopogon planiscapus ‘Nigrescens’, but this has been somewhat overdone. Try one of the double snowdrops with the near-black, palmate leaves of Geranium pratense ‘Purple Haze’, which should be coming into growth at about the same time as the first snowdrops open. Alternatively, the patterned foliage of heuchera varieties would provide good contrasting hummocks of purple and crimson.
One of the most attractive snowdrop associations in our garden is with our darkest hellebores, which have plumcolored foliage. As an undercover, Pulmonaria ‘Blue Ensign’, with plain dark leaves and the richest ultramarine flowers, provides a perfect setting for wandering swathes of Galanthus ‘S. Arnott’.