Nursery News: The 2014 Snowdrop Catalogue, featuring snowdrops and other winter interest plants like cyclamen and hellebores, is posted here, and we are taking orders.
All snowdrops are great companions for hellebores.
I have written a lot of articles about snowdrops, covering among other topics their ornamental characteristics, fascinating history, the importance of provenance, and profiling many cultivars. For links to all my previous snowdrop posts, click here. I have never, however, talked in detail about any of the snowdrop species from which cultivated snowdrops, now numbering over 1,000, have been selected. I hope this post will be the first in a series discussing each of the more important snowdrop species.
Much of the information in this post comes from Snowdrops: A Monograph of Cultivated Galanthus by Matt Bishop et al. (Griffin Press 2006) which is absolutely indispensable if you are researching or collecting snowdrops.
Common snowdrops pair well with snow crocus (just visible in the background) and really bring out the silver pattering on the leaves of Italian arum, which look fresh all winter.
Common snowdrops are a wonderful companion for the leaves and flowers of winter-blooming hardy cyclamen.
Common snowdrops look great paired with native coral bells, many of which keep their bright leaf colors all winter.
Brian Capon in his very handy book Botany for Gardeners defines a species as a “group of individuals sharing many characteristics and interbreeding freely.” Generally these individuals are growing in the wild and have a defined native range. There are 20 types of snowdrops that meet this definition and constitute the genus Galanthus, but only three of them have given rise to most of the named snowdrops: G. nivalis, G. elwesii, and G. plicatus.
Here I want to discuss Galanthus nivalis otherwise known as the common snowdrop although it is by no means common in any sense of the word and would be one of the first snowdrops I would add to my collection if I had to start over. In fact, it has received a coveted Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society.
Common snowdrops naturalize quickly in the mid-Atlantic U.S. generally by producing bulb offsets.
The common snowdrop has the largest native range of any snowdrop species and is the species most widely grown by gardeners. It is native to western, central, and southern Europe from France to the part of Turkey in Europe. It was first mentioned in print in the 16th century when it was already being grown as an ornamental plant.
Linnaeus named it Galanthus nivalis in 1753. According to another fascinating book, Plant Names Explained (Horticulture 2005), gala means milk, -anthus means -flowered, and nivalis means snowy or snow-like. Common snowdrops fill our gardens here at Carolyn’s Shade Gardens, which is part of an old estate called Wayside dating back to the 1600s (we live in Wayside Cottage which formerly housed the gardener).
Galanthus nivalis, the common snowdrop
Common snowdrops are generally 4 to 6 inches tall. The narrow, straplike leaves are green with a glaucous center stripe giving an overall gray-blue appearance. The flowers have three outer petal-like segments and three smaller inner segments. They are pure white with a bright green v-shaped mark around the notch (called a sinus) on the apex of the inner segments.
Common snowdrops flower here in February and March no matter what the weather and prefer moist deciduous woods with deep organic soil. However, they are not picky about cultural conditions and will naturalize freely in a wide range of garden settings, including the dry woods of Carolyn’s Shade Gardens. They pair beautifully with native coral bells, snow crocus, Italian arum, hardy cyclamen, and hellebores.
A natural mutation at Carolyn’s Shade Gardens, if you look closely these flowers have four outer segments (petals).
Because common snowdrops generally spread through bulb offsets rather than seed, the flowers in colonies are theoretically identical. However, natural variations occur as you can see from the photo above where the flowers have four outer segments. Often these mutations are not stable and do not persist as was the case with the flowers pictured. However, sometimes ornamentally interesting and stable changes occur, and, if they are noticed by a sharp-eyed galanthophile, they enter cultivated gardens and even become a named cultivar available for sale.
A clump of double common snowdrops
double common snowdrop
I want to highlight three cultivars of the common snowdrop to give you an idea of the range available. The double common snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis ‘Flore Pleno’ (or sometimes G. n. f. pleniflorus ‘Flore Pleno’), is the oldest known snowdrop cultivar, first illustrated in 1703 and described in a prominent gardener’s dictionary in 1731. Although it is sterile, it spreads vigorously from bulb offsets and is tolerant of a wide range of cultural conditions. I have been told that in England it is often more abundant than the straight species.
‘Flore Pleno’ has a lovely flower and has the advantage of being less expensive than the rest of the double snowdrops available so it is great for naturalizing. It is the parent with G. plicatus of the Greatorex double series of snowdrops to which ‘Dionysus’, ‘Hippolyta’, ‘Ophelia’, and several other double snowdrops belong. ‘Flore Pleno’ was also given an Award of Garden Merit by the RHS.
the green-tipped snowdrop ‘Viridapice
One of my favorite snowdrops is the green-tipped common snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis ‘Viridapice’. It was originally found near an old farmhouse in northern Holland by a member of the Hoog family, owners of the venerable but now defunct Dutch bulb nursery Van Tubergen. It is a vigorous and large-flowered snowdrop characterized by a beautiful and strikingly prominent green marking on the apex of the outer segments and a large single mark on the inner segments.
Unfortunately, the name ‘Viridapice’ was applied over the years to a number of different green-tipped common snowdrops, some of which are quite inferior. I acquired my strain from the old Heronswood Nursery in Kingston, Washington, and I am happy to report that it is a superior strain and one of the best naturalizers in my garden.
the double common snowdrop ‘Blewbury Tart’
Finally, I want to highlight a newer cultivar of the common snowdrop, because I love it and because it was discovered by the only person I know who is more excited about snowdrops than me, Alan Street of Avon Bulbs in England. In 1975, Alan noticed ‘Blewbury Tart’ in a churchyard in the village of Blewbury in Oxfordshire, England, where he grew up, and collected it with the permission of Vicar Hugh Pickles. The famous galanthophile Primrose Warburg helped to name it because she called it Blewbury Muffin when Alan gave it to her, thus inspiring the name ‘Blewbury Tart’.
I asked Alan if there was a special anecdote that I could relate here. He told me that when he first exhibited it in 1985, a prominent British journalist said it looked like a “squashed fly on a windscreen”. Nevertheless Avon offered it for sale in 1992. It is an unruly double with an outward-facing dark green inner rosette encircled by three narrow outer segments. It looks like it is having a bad hair day and always makes me smile when I see it. Alan relates that another prominent British galanthophile, Ruby Baker, considers it a favorite.
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Although I don’t expect most gardeners to share my obsession, whenever I write about snowdrops I hope to communicate some of the enthusiasm that snowdrops arouse. Maybe you will add them to your garden this year! All four snowdrops profiled are available from Carolyn’s Shade Gardens.
Nursery Happenings: We are now taking orders from the 2014 Snowdrop Catalogue, featuring snowdrops and other winter interest plants like cyclamen and hellebores. To access the catalogue, please click here. Please visit my Etsy Shop to purchase beautiful photo note cards suitable for all occasions, including a new set of snowdrop cards, by clicking here.
Carolyn’s Shade Gardens is a local retail nursery in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, U.S., zone 7a. The only plants that we mail order are snowdrops and miniature hostas and only within the US.
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