Snowdrops: A Surefire Cure For The Mid Winter Doldrums

Common snowdrops, Galanthus nivalis

At first glance, it seems impossible. It’s the middle of February and small clusters of tiny white flowers are breaking through the frozen soil. Snowdrops, or Galanthus, are for many the harbingers of spring. To me, their yearly emergence mid winter is the perfect symbol for courage and resilience as, one by one, they infuse cold weather months with a new kind of meaning.

Snowdrops have an inspiring ability to survive and grow in the face of much weather adversity. It’s hard not to look at them and draw parallels with life. Louise Glück’s poem articulates this idea beautifully.

This poem always motivates me to go out and do something big. And it certainly makes a person look at snowdrops with a whole new level of appreciation.

About Snowdrops (Galanthus)

Snowdrop, Galanthus, is a small genus of bulbous herbaceous perennial plants that is part of the amaryllis family. The plant gets its name from the Greek gala meaning milk, and anthos meaning flower. Common snowdrop, or Galanthus nivalis, (nivalis is Latin for snowy) is the best known species of Galanthus. Native to large areas of Europe, it has been introduced and naturalized all over the world.

Diminutive in scale, but built like a warrior, Galanthus nivalis has narrow leaves and sturdy 6-inch stems that produce a single white, tear-shaped flower. The pendulous blooms are composed of six petal segments: three small petals surrounded by three larger ones. The inner three are notched at the tip and have U-shaped green markings.

Common snowdrop flower

In my area (Zone 7) common snowdrops typically flower in February/March. The large-flowered Galanthus ‘Atkinsii’, recipient of the Royal Horticultural Society Award of Garden Merit, is one of the earliest blooming varieties. And the heirloom Galanthus ‘Flore Pleno’ is a beautiful, double-flowered cultivar if you’re looking for something a little different.

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

How do they grow in such a cold world?

According to Cambridge University, snowdrops have built-in anti-freeze proteins (AFPs) that allow them to survive in subzero weather. AFPs bind to small ice crystals and inhibit them from growing in plant cells (which causes death in the tissue). This protects the plants from severe-weather stresses and also some diseases.

Occasionally, very harsh cold can cause snowdrops to fall over. But not to worry, thanks to AFPs, they’ll perk up again as soon as temperatures rise.

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

How not to confuse snowdrops with snowflakes (of the botanical kind)

A few years ago, I started renovating a garden on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. In the spring, hundreds of bluebells and what I thought were 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 another species, Leucojum, with which they are closely related. Leucojum aestivum  (also known as Giant Snowflake) has pendulous flowers as well, but with a couple key differences. The flower is bell-shaped and all six petals are the same size, with green markings at the tips. Snowflakes look a lot like giant lilies-of-the valley.

Leucojum vernum flower/each petal has green markings

Snowflakes bloom much later than snowdrops, depending on your location anytime between April and very early May. Leucojum aestivum ‘Gravetye Giant’ is a popular cultivar.

How to grow snowdrops

Common snowdrops prefer partial shade, but will take full sun. They are deer resistant! Plant clusters of 20-25 bulbs in fall a few inches apart for maximum impact. This is a flower that looks great as a ‘carpet’ under bare trees.

Snowdrops look best planted as a mass

Once they’re done flowering, leave the foliage on the plant until it turns yellow to allow the plant to store nutrients for next year’s blooms.

Snowdrops multiply easily by themselves; however, they can also be propagated by division. The best time to lift and divide snowdrops is when they have just finished flowering.

Toxicity

Snowdrops contain the alkaloid galantamine, which according to the National Institutes of Health, has shown mild cognitive and global benefits for patients with Alzheimer’s Disease. However, it can also cause gastrointestinal distress if consumed in large quantities. Some sites list galanthus as poisonous for humans and animals. 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…

Photos courtesy/Shutterstock