Plant Profiles: Snowdrops

Photo of massed snowdrops at Colesbourne Park, Gloucestershire
Massed snowdrops at Colesbourne Park on Sunday

I've had a wonderful time visiting a number of gardens noted for their snowdrops, but now is the time to hunker down and admire those in my own garden. It's time for the annual snowdrop count, where I reassure myself that my clumps of good old Galanthus nivalis and doubles (Galanthus nivalis f. pleniflora 'Flore Pleno') are not only thriving, they're multiplying.

My blogging pals ask how I achieve my count. I'm sure their mind's eye pictures my blooms in the same profusion as those I saw at Colesbourne Park with Victoria on Sunday. The current reality at VP Gardens is not so profuse*, so it's easy to work through each clump, gently putting the counted snowdrops to one side until each little patch is recorded. My snowdrops aren't at their peak yet and I reckon it's a week or so until I know whether last year's count of 3,127 is exceeded.

Photo of a small clump of Galanthus nivalis snowdrops
One of the smaller clumps of Galanthus nivalis in my garden. How many do you see?

My count started the year after NAH gave me 1,000 in the green snowdrops for my birthday. It took me quite a while to plant them, so I was worried they wouldn't come back the next year. That first census showed I'd lost around 25%** of those I'd planted, which was a much better result than my previous non-success with bulbs.

Since then I've seen quite a debate about the best way to plant them. John Grimshaw, one of THE snowdrop experts and latterly of Colesbourne Park, advises planting plump well-formed bulbs in early summer (when lifting and dividing your own bulbs***), as their stores will be fully formed ready to flower the next spring.

Bulbs had a bad press previously because they were often supplied as dried out, shrivelled specimens and thus in the green became the more reliable supply of choice. These need to be bought or lifted and planted as fresh as possible for success. Note also that any root disturbance during the digging up process means surviving plants often spend their first year or so settling into their new home rather than getting ready to flower.

They also need to be kept well-watered during this time as there is often a dry period in spring after they're planted. Bulb supplies are much improved now, so I think it's a matter of choosing the method which suits your gardening timetable and conditions best, finding a good supplier of bulb or plant, then giving them the conditions they need to thrive.

Photo showing the labelled raised display of snowdrops at Colesbourne Park
Snowdrops on display close to the house at Colesbourne Park

There's also the pot-grown supply option, which is a sort of half-way house between the two. Having vowed never to start down the slippery slope of having a snowdrop collection, I now find myself with a small but perfectly formed set of 6 special pots ready for a new home in the garden.

After hearing Naomi's talk I know keeping my bulbs in pots is only a temporary solution. I'm worried about hybridisation if I plant them out in my garden as I don't have the space to grow them in discretely separate places close to the house. I liked the way Colesbourne Park displayed theirs, so I'm thinking about asking for a deep stone trough for my birthday to re-home my new-found treasures.

* = though I'm working on achieving a wonderful mass of snowdrops on the bank at the side of our house, just like those in the picture

** = or had I? Perhaps they were just settling into their new home rather than flowering

*** = purchased bulbs should be planted out as soon as possible


Cultivation notes

Bankside snowdrops at VP Gardens
My side garden bank of snowdrops
Snowdrops thrive in a moist, well-drained partly-shaded position such as woodland edges or orchards. They benefit from the addition of leaf-mould to the soil, if the trees above don't do it for you! I've found some anecdotal evidence that slightly alkaline soils like those in my garden are helpful. Keep the bulbs well watered whilst they are establishing.

Clumps of snowdrops propagate themselves easily - lift a clump that's getting congested and you should find plenty of mature and mini-bulbs ready for dividing up and planting out elsewhere. I've also tried bending the seedheads over after flowering and burying them in fresh soil to establish new clumps. I'm not sure how effective this is as it'll be several years before any flowers are seen.

G. 'Flore Pleno'
G. 'Flore Pleno'
The main snowdrop season for Galanthus nivalis is February through to early March. Mine usually bloom from January onwards and if I planted other snowdrop species such as Galanthus reginae-olgae, I could have them in bloom from October onwards (though to me that seems wrong, somehow).

Snowdrops are noted for their honeyed scent and provide a good source of nectar for bees on the warmer winter days. One of the snowdrops most noted for its scent is Galanthus 'S. Arnott' - Colesbourne Park has a bank of these near the steps leading up from the lake. I can confirm how noticeable their scent was last Sunday!

Snowdrops and cyclamen
Snowdrops and cyclamen
Good planting companions include Cyclamen coum, aconites (Eranthis hymelis), dogwoods (Cornus sp.), Ophiopogon planiscapus 'Nigrescens', and hellebores. Some of mine are planted underneath a Himalayan birch tree with red-stemmed dogwoods as a foil. I'm also keen to try them with clumps of Arum italicum 'Marmoratum' and ferns in my woodland garden. 

There has been much debate on whether snowdrops are native to the UK. The current thinking is they're naturalised escapees from gardens. They aren't edible, but substances extracted from them such as galantamine are proving useful in the treatment of Alzheimer's disease and dementia.

Snowdrops at Lacock Abbey
Snowdrops at Lacock Abbey
Snowdrops can be quite variable - Naomi noticed my garden's Galanthus nivalis have very strong green markings compared to the finer tracery we saw on those at the National Botanic Garden of Wales. It's this variability which has given rise to the profusion of named cultivars now available, though I'm sure mine are just plain old nivalis, rather than anything new or remarkable. Galanthus elwesii is another species noted for its variability.

Further reading


Latin without tears

There are 20 snowdrop species listed officially (as at 2015). Here's a guide to the more common ones available and their meanings:

  • Galanthus - readers of my first fun latin quiz already know the genus name is formed from the Greek words for milk (gala) and flower (anthos)
  • elwesii - named after Henry John Elwes (1846 - 1922), plant collector and owner of Colesbourne Park, where this species is seen in profusion and has given to rise to hybrids such as 'Colossus'
  • flore-pleno - with double flowers (NB this describes the double form of Galanthus nivalis, rather than being a species in its own right)
  • nivalis - as white as snow, or growing near snow
  • plicatus - pleated
  • reginae-olgae - named after Queen (the reginae bit) Olga of Greece (1851-1926)
  • woronowii - named after Georg Woronow, a Russian plant collector (1874-1931)
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  1. Useful post Michelle, thanks. And weirdly, I was at Colesbourne on Sunday too! In case it's of interest to your readers, my blogpost has a few close-ups of some of those I saw there:

    1. Great post Gwenfar - it's a shame we didn't bump into each other on Sunday!

  2. Our snowdrips are at about the same stage. Must admit to having mixed feelings about double snowdrops.

    1. Me too - but I have a sneaking liking for the double 'Lady Beatrix Stanley' as she is so dainty.

  3. I am sure I was told or read the majority of snowdrops except for the species dont seed so hydribisation wouldnt be a problem. But then I found myself wondering if this is the case how do we get such variety and I am now most confused!

    1. I need to do a bit more delving on that then Helen. It would be good to know that most of my 'specials' are safe. However, I also have some pots of G. elwesii and they're extremely variable in both size and markings!

  4. How on earth do you have the patience to count 3,000 snowdrops? I'd get up to 2,041, lose my place and have to start again.

    1. I divide the garden into sections and tackle them one at a time, Victoria. There's a lot of fingers involved too as I work through the 100s!

  5. I tried to comment a couple of days ago but away from home and my iPad seems unable to cope with commenting on Blogger posts :( A most informative and well written post Michelle. I would caution against buying snowdrop bulbs in the autumn from garden centres. Latest plantings of such around my dad's grave resulted in not a solitary snowdrop which I was sad to see last week. I do buy both dormant bulbs and in the green bulbs from specialist nurseries and growers and have had success with both methods. Like you said I think it's a matter of finding what fits in with you best. It sounds as if you will soon fill up that trough.

    1. Thanks for your persistence Anna and I wonder if your iPad woes are the root cause of other comments I've had about leaving comments on Blogger. That's really sad about your dad's grave and I hope you'll add more bulbs in the future. The autumn bulbs have a better reputation than they did - many bulbs used to be dried out in Turkey after harvesting, though that practice is now seen as being detrimental to the bulb. However, as you say purchasing from a specialist nursery or grower is the better option.


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