If snowdrops flowered in midsummer we would probably barely notice their presence. We might even find them a nuisance the way they clump up so quickly and leave behind a great mound of boring foliage which must be religiously left to feed the cursed little bulbils for next year. I can almost feel myself reaching for the Roundup. Louise’s Great Plant this Month shows a far more attractive winter flowering star.
But snowdrops have the immense good sense to flower at a time when we are all sick of cold cheerless days of frost, when their promise of better things to come make us go a little bit potty about them.
Snowdrops are the ultimate vernal species, adapted to growing in deciduous woodland where they can get up and away before the leaf canopy closes over them blocking out the light they need to photosynthesise and store starch for next years effort.
Anyone who does not believe snowdrops thrive best in woodland should, as I did last week, take a trip to the Hebridean island of Islay. Here the woods are transformed to a late winter wonderland that mainland gardens, hoping to extend their season of paying visitors by creating ‘snowdrop walks’, can only dream of.
The other thing I like about snowdrops (Galanthus) is the eccentric following they attract. Galanthamania started in the Victorian era when aristocratic plantsmen and women would gather in each other’s gardens to examine and swap obscure selections of the species. To my eye even modern day gatherings of galanthophiles tend to resemble the cast of an Agatha Christie novel with the kind of upper class dottiness that I think the Brexiteers probably had in mind when they claimed they wanted to make Britain great again.
You are so right, Laura, about snowdrops wisely not flowering at other seasons of the year when there are more glamorous candidates to draw the eye. And they are basically…well..white – with all the ice and frost about in February, where is the sense in that? With my Latin teacher hat on, I need to point out that in Ancient Greek, ‘gala’ means ‘milk’ and ‘anthos’ means ‘flower’, and by far the most common species is ‘nivalis’ which in Latin means ‘snow-white’ – I think you are getting the gist.
I can’t even bring myself to discuss the abominations that are yellow snowdrops – I suggest that you should avoid them in the same way that you should avoid yellow snow.
Snowdrops are sometimes suggested for decorative winter pots – please don’t bother. They really don’t like it and go into a usually terminal sulk; the wonderfully personable G. ‘Grumpy’*, pictured, looks like potted snowdrops obviously feel. Use white crocus, mini- narcissi or little irises instead.
There is always a lot of hoo-ha each year about splitting and replanting snowdrops ‘in the green’ i.e. still with leaves and roots on. But honestly, you don’t have to. The roots are very likely to become damaged that way, whereas dividing and moving the little dormant bulbils in July will do no harm at all. Just don’t give them time to twiddle their thumbs on the potting bench before deciding where to plant them. Some gardens like Colebourne Gardens (styled ‘England’s Greatest Snowdrop Garden’) use only this method, with complete success.
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It’s no surprise my sisters are snooty about snowdrops – they are typically testy about anything that horticultural Philistines like me can grow, (and I thought Laura was curiously lofty about Brexit voters given that she’s a Mail on Sunday reader – ‘I only get it for the finance section’ :0!)
Of course both the girls are bit older so if ‘cutting edge’ is more your thing than ‘old school’ pedantry, stick with me.
According to garden writer Val Bourne, Scotland is big on snowdrops because so many Scottish regiments fought in the Crimean War and returned with bulbs of Galanthus plicatus (native to that region). They thrived in the Scottish climate and hybridised with the local G.nivalis (so if Laura had done a little more research she wouldn’t have been surprised by her Islay experience).
I went to Cambo Gardens near St Andrews, Fife on last Tuesday where over 240 varieties of snowdrops, are far more interesting than the area’s golfing attractions.
Head gardener Elliot Forsyth (although very Scottish he’s featured in the March issue of the ‘English Garden‘ magazine), has created a stunning winter garden there. He demonstrated to me how the two (or sometimes three) snowdrop leaves – correctly termed ‘spathe’ – protect the flower as it emerges and have a natural antifreeze in their tips to protect it from the harsh conditions.
He showed me particularly the elongated pedicel of G.plicatus ‘Sibbertoft Manor’ which allows the flower to bounce, like a gorgeous pendulum, below. And (again, what is wrong with my sisters?) he showed me the fast-spreading, knock-out yellow snowdrop G. nivalis ‘Sandersii‘ ex Lowick featured at the top of our blog. Isn’t it gorgeous? I really have to keep an eye on the advice my sisters are giving you sometimes..
*G. ‘Grumpy’ is one of the star snowdrops at Cambo. Very popular with children!