One of the first bulbs to bloom in the garden are snowdrops. While small and not particularly flashy, they have a certain charm that is especially appreciated when they are seen valiantly pushing through the last snows of winter. Snowdrops belong to the genus Galanthus, derived from the Greek works gala, milk and anthos, flower. So the literal translation is milk flower. However, the English word ‘snowdrop' actually comes from the translated German word, ‘Schneetropfen'.
There are about 14 species of snowdrops. They are relatives of daffodils and indeed, their small bulbs are like diminutive versions of a daffodil bulb. They hail from western Europe, especially the Caucasus and Caspian Sea regions. Unlike most winter-spring flowering bulbs, snowdrops do not like to dry out completely during the summer. In fact, their preference for relatively moist soil translates into their shelf life in the garden center. They should be purchased and planted as soon as available or the bulbs will quickly shrivel. Once established, they actually maintain active roots year-round.
These bulbs are premier choices for naturalizing in lawns and among shrubs. Plant them in drifts or large clusters in a sunny to partly shaded location, planting bulbs about 2" apart and 2" deep. If transplanting them from one part of the garden to another, or if getting a few bulbs from a friend, they are actually best moved while still in leaf, rather than waiting until their leaves fade. I've transplanted them in full bloom with no ill effects. Plants both self-seed and multiply by bulb division, so a few bulbs will become a sizable clump in a short time. Like daffodils, they do not seem to be readily browsed by rabbits, hares or deer.
Galanthus nivalis, the regular form on the left, the double form on the right.
Despite there being 14 species, the difference between them is quite subtle and probably only appreciated by snowdrop afficionados. Each bulb typically produces two small, strap-like leaves. From between the leaves arise a single flower stem topped by a solitary nodding flower. The flower structure is quite unmistakable. There are three outer ‘petals' (modified sepals) that are snow-white and oval to elliptical in shape. These are generally twice as large as and partly obscure the three inner petals which form a tube around the reproductive structures. The inner petals are typically notched and white tipped in green or more rarely, yellow.
Galanthus nivalis 'Magnet' shows the typical form of snowdrop flowers with three larger outer 'petals' that are pure white and smaller inner petals which are notched and tipped green.
The main species grown (and hardiest at zone 4) is the common snowdrop, G. nivalis. Depending on your location, they may bloom from January to April, often appearing within days of the last melting snows of winter. Flowers are quite hardy and like little troopers, face late frosts and snows with aplomb. There are several named cultivars of G. nivalis but most distinct are the double-flowered forms and ‘Viridapice' whose outer petals are tipped green.
Some examples of single-flowered G. nivalis cultivars: 'Viridapice' (top left), 'Maidwell L' (top right)and 'Ophelia' (bottom)
Galanthus nivalis 'Flore Pleno'
Another species sometimes encountered is the giant or greater snowdrop, G. elwesii, whose flowers are nearly twice the size of those from the common snowdrop. Specialist nurseries may offer other species like G. alpinus, G. ikariae or G. plicatus. There are also hybrids between these various species. If really lucky, you may find G. reginae-olgae which is a fall-blooming species. If so fortunate, then snowdrops would mark both the end AND beginning of your flowering season!
The species Galanthus elwesii (left) and G. ikariae (right)
A sincere thank-you to Galanthophile ('Maidwell L', 'Ophelia' and 'Magnet') and kniphofia ('Viridapice' and G. ikariae) for the use of their pictures.
(Editor's Note: This article was originally published on October 5, 2008. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to promptly respond to new questions or comments.)