Snowdrops: A Garden Cure For The Mid Winter Doldrums

It doesn’t seem possible. It’s February, and tiny white flowers are poking through the frozen ground. Snowdrops 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). Originally from Europe, it now grows all over the world.

Despite its small size, 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 composed 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 appear 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, usually in March.

HOW CAN THEY WITHSTAND THE COLD? 

When winter sets in, most plants stop growing because freezing temperatures interrupt the pathways for water and nutrients to flow. 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. It also staves off diseases.

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

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 when hundreds of snowdrops starting appearing in the woodland. The flowers looked slightly different, though. They were bell-shaped. And all of the petals (not just the inner ones) had green markings at the tips.

Leucojum vernum

I had confused snowdrops with Spring Snowflake, Leucojum vernum, to which they are closely related. This species also has pendulous flowers. But 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. 

HOW TO GROW 

Both snowdrops and snowflakes naturalize easily, rapidly forming carpets of beautiful, nodding white flowers. Although they prefer part shade, they will also take full sun. And they are deer resistant! I recommend planting clusters of 20-25 bulbs a few inches apart for maximum impact. Plant the bulbs in the fall before the ground freezes.

Snowdrops look best planted as a mass

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

TOXICITY

Snowdrops and snowflakes 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 poisoning, 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…