It never fails to shock. Temperatures are freezing yet tiny flowers are popping up out of the ground. Snowdrops are for many the true harbingers of spring. And with good reason. These tough-as-nails plants can stand up to harsh weather and in no time will form milky-white carpets to brighten even the grayest of winter days.
Part of the amaryllis family, snowdrop (Galanthus) is an ornamental bulbous plant. It gets its name from the Greek gala meaning milk and anthos meaning flower. The best-known species is Galanthus nivalis, or common snowdrop (nivalis meaning snowy). Native to Europe, this species has hundreds of cultivated varieties and is grown all over the world.
Though small in stature, snowdrop is built like a warrior. Armed with tough green leaves and sturdy 6-inch stems, it soldiers on in cold weather. In late winter, each bulb produces a single, tear-shaped flower composed of three small petals surrounded by three larger ones. The inner petals are notched at the tips with distinctive U-shaped green markings.
Common snowdrops’ distinctive tear-shaped flower
In my area (Zone 7), common snowdrops typically break ground in February or early March. A variety called giant snowdrop (Galanthus elwesii) has taller stems and produces much larger flowers. It blooms later than Galanthus nivalis, or usually sometime in March.
SNOWDROPS AND SNOWFLAKES
A few years ago, I was renovating a garden on Maryland’s Eastern Shore when hundreds of what looked like snowdrops started popping up in the woodland. But the flowers looked slightly different. Instead of tear-shaped, they were bell-shaped. And all the petals (not just the inner ones) had green markings at the tips.
I had confused snowdrops with spring snowflakes, Leucjum vernum. Typically blooming much later than snowdrops, they appear anytime between April and early May. Nowadays I plant both so I can extend the early flowering season.
The bell-shaped flowers of common snowflake
HOW TO GROW SNOWDROPS
Plant snowdrops in the fall in groups of 20 to 25 for maximum impact. They naturalize easily, and will rapidly form carpets of beautiful nodding white flowers. Although they prefer some shade, the bulbs will also take full sun. And they are deer resistant.
Looking for more color? Plant them with other early-flowering bulbs like crocus, scilla siberica and winter aconite for two months of continuous blooms.
Plant snowdrops with other early spring bulbs for months of color.
After flowering, resist the urge to cut back the leaves until they yellow (at which point they usually disappear on their own). This allows the plants to store nutrients for next year’s blooms, a key practice for all spring bulbs.
HOW THEY SURVIVE THE COLD
Once winter arrives, most plants stop growing as freezing temperatures block the transport of water and nutrients. Snowdrops, however, are equipped with anti-freeze proteins (AFPs). AFPs bind to ice crystal and stop them from forming. This in turn protects the plants’ tissue from freezing and also helps stave off diseases.
Occasionally, extreme cold can will cause snowdrops to fall over. But AFPs enable them to straighten up again once temperatures climb.
Snowdrops and snowflakes contain the alkaloid galantamine, which can cause gastrointestinal distress in humans and animals if ingested in large quantities. Although all parts of the plant contain some of the alkaloid, the bulb itself has the largest concentration. For more information on signs and symptoms of snowdrop poisoning in dogs, go to petpoisonhelpline.com. And wear garden gloves when handling the bulbs.
Only a couple weeks now until the snowdrops begin blooming in my area. I already feel spring around the corner.