Snowdrops: My Cure For The Mid Winter Doldrums

Common snowdrops, Galanthus nivalis

To all appearances, it doesn’t seem possible. It’s February, and tiny white flowers are popping up out of the frozen soil. Snowdrops, or Galanthus, are for many the true harbingers of spring. If you ask me, they’re also a powerful symbol of resilience as, one by one, they infuse the cold weather months with a new shade of meaning.

ABOUT SNOWDROPS (GALANTHUS)

The snowdrop, Galanthus, is a bulbous perennial that is part of the amaryllis family. It gets its name from the Greek gala (meaning milk) and anthos (meaning flower). The best known species is common snowdrop, or Galanthus nivalis, (nivalis is Latin for snowy). Native to Europe, it now grows all over the world.

Despite being small in scale, this plant is built like a warrior. Its tough, dark green leaves and sturdy 6-inch stems are the perfect match for cold weather. In late winter, it produces a single white, tear-shaped flower consisting of three small petals surrounded by three larger ones. The inner three are notched at the tip with distinctive, U-shaped green markings.

Common snowdrop

In my area (Zone 7) common snowdrops typically flower in February or early March. The large-flowered Galanthus ‘Atkinsii’ is one of the earliest blooming varieties. And the heirloom Galanthus ‘Flore Pleno’ is a beautiful, double-flowered cultivar for those of us looking for something a little different.

There’s also a larger variety called Giant Snowdrop, or Galanthus elwesii. It has 6- to 12-inch stems and produces much larger flowers. It blooms later than Galanthus nivalis, or usually in March.

HOW CAN THEY GROW IN THE COLD? 

When winter sets in, most plants stop growing as freezing temperatures prevent water from flowing within their sap. Snowdrops, however, contain anti-freeze proteins (AFPs) that enable them to survive subzero weather. These AFPs bind to small ice crystals and inhibit them from forming. This in turn protects the plants’ tissue from freezing while also staving off diseases.

Occasionally, very harsh cold can cause snowdrops to fall over. But thanks to AFPs, they perk right up once temperatures rise back up again.

Anti-freeze proteins (AFPs) help snowdrops survive harsh weather.

HOW TO TELL SNOWDROPS FROM SNOWFLAKES 

A few years ago, I was renovating a garden on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. In the spring, hundreds of what I thought were snowdrops starting appearing in the woodland. The flowers looked slightly different, though. They were bell shaped. And unlike common snowdrops, all of the petals (not just the inner ones) had green markings at the tips.

Leucojum vernum

I had confused snowdrops with Leucojum aestivum, with which they are closely related. Commonly known as Giant Snowflake, this species also has pendulous flowers, but with one key difference. Unlike Galanthus, the petals are all the same size. 

Leucojum vernum flower/each petal has green markings.

Snowflakes typically bloom much later than snowdrops, which depending on where you live can be anytime between April and very early May. Leucojum aestivum ‘Gravetye Giant’ is a popular cultivar.

HOW TO GROW 

Common snowdrops naturalize easily, quickly forming carpets of beautiful, nodding white flowers. They prefer partial shade, but will take full sun. They are also deer resistant! I recommend planting clusters of 20-25 bulbs (in the fall) a few inches apart for maximum impact. 

Snowdrops look best planted as a mass

After flowering, leave the foliage on the plants until it turns yellow. This allows them to store nutrients for next year’s blooms. This is an important practice for all spring bulbs

TOXICITY

Snowdrops contain the alkaloid galantamine, which can cause gastrointestinal distress in humans and animals if ingested in large quantities. Some sites go so far as to list galanthus as poisonous.

For more information on signs of snowdrop poisoning in dogs, click here for wagwalking.com signs and symptoms in dogs. And wear garden gloves when handling the bulbs.

Snowdrop bulbs can be toxic to humans and pets

Only a couple weeks now until the snowdrops will be blooming in my area. I already feel spring around the corner…

For photos of my garden designs, including plant lists, check out my Instagram at carole.herebydesign. I post seasonally from spring through fall. 

 

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