I’d long assumed that snowdrops were named for their ability to push through a shallow snow cover and to bloom in winter. In fact, in France they’re given the name pierce niege, or “snow-piercing.” These diminutive members of the Amaryllis family can indeed emerge through the snow, but the name “snowdrop” (the genus Galanthus) actually comes from the flower buds’ resemblance to a “drop” of snow. Or perhaps a more intriguing explanation: when in bud the flowers resemble the pearl earrings of the 16th and 17th centuries, popularly known as Schneetropfen in German and translating to “snow drops.” (Think Girl With a Pearl Earring.) The Greek-derived name Galanthus translates to “milk flower.” Nomenclature aside, these little flowers are a welcome sign that winter is on its way out. Not that cold weather and snow won’t persist for a while, of course.
The roughly twenty species of Galanthus are native to Europe and Asia, from the Pyrenees eastward to the Levant; the Caucasus is home to the greatest diversity of species. Planted for many years outside their natural range, they have thoroughly naturalized in the U.K. From late January into March, England and Scotland celebrate the snowdrops’ bloom in dozens of gardens that open their gates to the public. All snowdrops have a single flower with six tepals—similar to petals, so I’ll stick with that term—with three of these somewhat smaller than the others. The flower hangs downward on a stalk four to ten inches high, with two narrow strap-like leaves at the base.
Among snowdrop fanatics, aka “galanthophiles,” upwards of 500 cultivars are known—and they’re always looking for more. The more unusual among these can easily cost $40 or $50 per bulb, while the record price paid is approximately $500. Not quite tulipomania or orchid fever, but the symptoms are the same.
To the casual observer many of the differences among the cultivars are difficult to detect. After all, even on the Giant Snowdrop—the name is something of an exaggeration—flowers are only about an inch long. You could be searching for slight variations in the size of green blotches on the petals, or perhaps a double flower instead of the typical single. And to actually observe these differences, you might need to get down on your knees, or at least reach down and turn the flower upwards. One of the somewhat more conspicuous traits in some cultivars is a yellow cap on top of the flower; actually the ovary, it’s green on the typical snowdrops. If you indeed catch the galanthophile bug, you can purchase some at carolynsshadegardens.com. It’s also a fun place just to window shop.
For those who have retained a modicum of sanity, snowdrop buying can be a lot simpler. Most general-interest catalogs or garden centers will carry fewer than ten species or cultivars. Galanthus nivalis, the Common Snowdrop, grows to 6” to 9” and has narrow leaves. Blooming between January and March, it naturalizes better than most species. The Giant Snowdrop (G. elwesii) is a bit taller at 9” to 12”, with wider gray-green leaves that I find attractive in themselves. It flowers about one week later than G. nivalis, with one notable exception: the variety monostictus flowers from late fall into winter. Last November I attended a meeting of the North American Rock Garden Society in Durham that included a visit to Montrose, the garden of Nancy Goodwin in Hillsborough, North Carolina. Montrose is known for its rivers of snowdrops, and they did not fail to put on quite the show.
Snowdrops prefer good well-drained soil in sun to partial shade; a canopy of tall deciduous trees would provide ideal conditions. Plant about 3” deep and equally far apart. They can be divided when in full growth, just after flowering is over. Goodwin digs an entire clump, roots and all; she immediately puts them in water to avoid drying, then plants and waters again.
Speaking of clumps: with something as small as snowdrops, either go big or go home. Plant at least 25, preferably 50, even more if you can manage it. My clump of ten(?) looks a bit lonely, but at least it’s near the front door where we can easily enjoy it. I should order more soon for planting next fall; one of the more plain-vanilla varieties will set me back only about $35 for 50 bulbs from Brent and Becky’s.
Snowdrops will certainly impress in drifts by themselves, but also team up well with other plants that bloom at the same time. Bulbocodium vernum provides a purplish pink contrast, as do Crocus tommasinianus (available in several varieties), Cyclamen coum and Cyclamen hederifolium. Hellebores provide a bold counterpoint to snowdrops; just watch that they don’t overrun their little companions as they proliferate.
A bonus to planting Galanthus: being poisonous, they’re not likely to be bothered by critters. Sorry, Bambi.