Monday, March 28, 2011

The Featured Plant- Snowdrops

photo by Greg Neilley

How can you not like snowdrops?  They're like a company of delicate little ballerinas that dance through your garden before the big circus comes to town. And they show up just when you need them the most.

Where we live, in that far northern world of plant zones, snowdrops are not plants that are merely noticed out of the corner of your eye, like some other ephemerals I know.  Here, where every inch of melted snow means that we are one step closer to Spring, we are out there actively searching for them.  And, being the first among your circle of gardening friends to discover your very own clump, brings with it a certain measure of pride.

Like a family of vacationers who can't get out of a rut, our first little clump of snowdrops shows up at the same spot every year;  just at the edge of our driveway, on the North side of the house, where you would least expect any plant to survive.  It's a spot that is constantly scraped by the blade of the snowplow and, by this time of year is buried in two or three inches of grit that was displaced from the gravel drive during the long winter.  Yet, there in a little sunny spot, is where we always find our first clump, soon to be followed by their friends, the crocuses, and then a little later by a family of daffodils.

The great thing about snowdrops is that they appear, like pioneers, before there's much of anything else around to distract your attention.  And so, you notice all the little details of the plant that would certainly go unnoticed if they were surrounded by more colorful and glorious bedfellows.  It's the delicacy in the details of this plant that literally brings people to their knees.

And, indeed, this little plant is full of details.  Snowdrops are members of the Amaryllis family with the most common snowdrop being Galanthus nivalis. However, they are promiscuous little plants and so there are plenty of opportunities for new forms and variations to appear.  

one bulb of the Viceroy tulip brought
14 times the annual income of a
skilled craftsman in 1637 
I should probably stop right now and say..I love snowdrops, but there are people out there who REALLY love snowdrops.  These 'galanthophiles' have identified 19 species of snowdrops with over 500 cultivars.  And, they are willing to seek out the most obscure forms and track them down with a zeal that rivals the Dutch aristocracy during the days of the tulip mania.  As far as I know, there's not yet a future's market in snowdrops but certain forms, like the rare Galanthus nivalis f. pleniflorus 'Flocon de Neige,' have brought over $500 at auction.  Galanthophiles like Joe Eck and the late Wayne Winterrowd, of North Hill, place the beauty of the snowdrop above any other flower.

I'm a terrible bulb planter.  I always run out of gardening steam in the fall, when other chores, like cutting firewood, are vying for my attention.  Snowdrops give me the chance to redeem myself a little in the Spring (most Galanthus flower before the vernal equinox but certain species flower in the fall) because they like to be propagated "in the green."  That is, you can carefully divide clumps that are still in full growth, immediately after flowering. Professional growers of snowdrops also use a method of division called "twin scaling" where the bulb is sliced into sections, rooted in vermiculite, and then grown in pots in the greenhouse.

There are entire gardens dedicated to snowdrops, especially in England, Scotland and Ireland, and here in America at places like Winterthur, sections of the woodland gardens attract thousands of visitors when the snowdrops are in flower.

photographed March 22, courtesy of
There is no more beautiful sight than an open woodland carpeted with snowdrops in the early Spring.  Some day, I would love to spread their beauty around our own woodlands here at Juniper Hill.  But, after this especially hard and long winter, I'm content to simply go visit our dependable little clump by the edge of the battered driveway, drop to my knees, and admire all the beautiful little details that this whitest-of-white plant packs into such a tiny form. 

To learn what it means to be a real galanthophile, read about John Morley and his world of snowdrops, in the February issue of Gardens Illustrated.  

To read more about snowdrops, in their many forms, see the wonderful recent blog post at North Hill.

To learn more about snowdrops at Winterthur, click here.

by Bishop, Davis & Grimshaw
by Van Hanneke Dijk due for release in July

Click here to see other Featured Plants


  1. Yes, they do show up when we need them most, especially after this last long winter. I check the woods daily as the snow slowly recedes to welcome these mighty small harbingers of spring. Years ago John was renovating an old house which involved destroying an old garden. He rescued a few bucketfuls of unidentifiable masses of roots and bulbs for our newly built home, knowing I had hopes of a garden of my own. To our delight the following spring we had a few clumps of snowdrops. I confess in early days knowing very little about gardening I "yanked" them out of my garden beds and "tossed" them haphazardly into the woods. Now 30 years later, with our woods scattered in snowdrops, it looks like I had a well-thought out plan. I take no credit but I now handle them with tender respect. I gather a handful for our dining table so we can admire their delicate hanging white flowers edged in a soft green heart--grateful they survived my toss and grateful for their gift of spring.

  2. Maude, thanks for your wonderful comment! Isn't it funny how some of our best gardening results often come from those "well thought out" plans?


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