The Un-Common Snowdrop

Nursery News: Carolyn’s Shade Gardens is a retail nursery located in Bryn Mawr, PA, specializing in showy, colorful, and unusual plants for shade.  The only plants that we ship are snowdrops and miniature hostas.  For catalogues and announcements of events, please send your full name, location, and phone number (for back up use only) to carolyn@carolynsshadegardens.com.  Click here to get to the home page of our website for catalogues and information about our nursery and to subscribe to our blog.

Hybrid hellebore & G. 'Brenda Troyle'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.

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Galanthus nivalis & Arum italicum 'Pictum'Common snowdrops pair well with snow crocus (just visible in the background) and really bring out the silver patterning on the leaves of Italian arum, which look fresh all winter.

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G. nivalis and C. coum 'Rose'Common snowdrops are a wonderful companion for the leaves and flowers of winter-blooming hardy cyclamen.

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Galanthus nivalis & Heuchera 'Creme Brulee'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.

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G. nivalis CressonCommon snowdrops naturalize quickly in the mid-Atlantic U.S. generally by producing bulb offsets.

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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).

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Galanthus nivalis/Common SnowdropGalanthus 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.

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Galanthus nivalisA 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.

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G. 'Flore Pleno'A clump of double common snowdrops

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Galanthus nivalis 'Flore Pleno'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.

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G. 'Viridapice'the green-tipped snowdrop ‘Viridapice

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G. 'Viridiapice'‘Viridiapice’

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.

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Galanthus nivalis 'Blewbury Tart'the double common snowdrop ‘Blewbury Tart’

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Galanthus nivalis 'Blewbury Tart'‘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.

Carolyn

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Carolyn’s Shade Gardens is a local retail nursery in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, U.S., zone 6b/7a. The only plants that we mail order are snowdrops and miniature hostas and only within the US.

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21 Responses to “The Un-Common Snowdrop”

  1. amy cooke Says:

    Thanks for letting me know you got my payment and I hope our winter bloomers do well after this week’s cold. Thanks again, Amy Cooke

  2. Thank you for this post about the species snowdrop; I’m not such a fan of all the many cultivars but I love seeing masses of snowdrops growing under trees or on banks. For me the species are the ones I love. Perhaps it is an indication of my gardeing style in that I perfer to see masses of a simple or common plant that is thriving rather than one specimen of something’special’ often grown where it is not happy. Have a great gardening year in 2014, I so enjoy reading about your shade garden, something I don’t really have here. Christina

  3. Greetings fellow Galanthophile,
    It’s such a great time of the year, isn’t it ? When these toughest of flowers get a galanthophile excited. As indeed does the arrival of the latest Avon Bulbs catalogue, which I’ve also used over the years. Well done to you for spreading the word about the merits of snowdrops on your side of the pond. AB have just listed their market research on which are customer’s top 3 favourites over the past 2 years, and from this produced a grading of the most featured top 25 – they’ve said I can use it, so I’ll put in on my next post – I thought you might be interested to see which cultivars are there,
    Best wishes
    Julian

  4. Wonderful, a post about snowdrops! I shall look forward to the others, such precious flowers at this time of year.

  5. I am beginning to understand why folks are so excited about snowdrops. This is a very helpful article Carolyn. So these can be planted even now? susie

    • Susie, In the mid-Atlantic, you can plant them in the fall as dormant bulbs, although unless they came out of the ground very recently the failure rate is high. The best time to plant them here is in early spring when they are growing plants. This is called planting “in the green”. I have used both methods and have had 100% success with in the green planting over the course of 22 years. I have had many failures with fall planting. At the nursery, we sell the plants now for delivery at the end of February either by mail order or pick up here. Carolyn

  6. Very timely. I have been seeing a lot of snowdrops on blogs, even those blooming indoors in pots. It seems people are getting antsy for the bloom season to start. February is early! You really have the varieties to offer customers too.

  7. They are gorgeous, Carolyn. You do, indeed, have an impressive collection. I really like the way they look among the Cyclamens. I’ve been meaning to add more of both, so maybe that will be in the plans this year. Great post!

  8. Thanks Carolyn for yet another great post from you, I love snowdrops and can’t get enough of them, just a shame the more unusual ones are so expensive. I won’t buy single snowdrops for £20 and upwards – not when I can get 200 nivalis for the same price! So far I have G. nivalis, G. woronowii and G. ‘Flore Pleno’ in my garden but would like to have many more and have ‘pleniflorus’, ‘Desdemona’ and ‘Viridiapice’ on my wish list. I can hear my bank account groaning….
    The first snowdrops are flowering in my garden right now, thanks to the rather mild weather we are having and most of the spring bulbs are peeping out of ground.

  9. […] found a lovely blog this morning called Carolyn’s Shade Garden that introduced me to an interesting shade flower called Snowdrops.  Turns out its a winter […]

  10. I love all of them! Wanted to plant some this past fall and forgot to look for them. Now I have to wait another year:(

  11. You know I love when you post on snowdrops. And I especially love the green tipped one. I hope the common snowdrop I added last year have naturalized a bit more.

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