More mid winter delight than harbinger of spring – galanthus (snowdrops)

Galanthus S Arnott is a wonderful performer here

Galanthus S Arnott is a wonderful performer here

It’s snowdrop time. Proper snowdrops which are galanthus. These are widely referred to as English snowdrops, though they are not. In fact they occur naturally throughout Europe and down through the Mediterranean. It is just that the English have made them their own and who can blame them? Snowdrops rank right up there beside daffodils for that feeling of seasonal wonder.

We lack the snow of course, so we don’t get the simple picture of the flowers appearing through melting snow. I assume this is why they are called snowdrops in common parlance.

We will never be galanthophiles here, though that has more to do with climate than anything else. We have a number of different types of snowdrops but most are very marginal in our mild conditions and we struggle to keep them going here so there is no point whatever in collecting as many different ones as we can and keeping them separate, as galanthophiles will. While there are only about twenty species, there are hundreds of named varieties. Most of these are species selections. In other words, while snowdrops will seed down in the wild, particular variations have been selected out and then propagated from that original bulb (as opposed to raised from seed which won’t keep the variation stable – most will revert immediately to the usual form). We could only look in awe at the fabulous prices paid for a very good new white and yellow snowdrop in the UK last year. It was knocking on the door of past times when the wealthy paid vast amounts for a new tulip bulb. While we have the old double variety, G. nivalis Flore Pleno, we have not sought the many variants on doubles. Flore Pleno is not flowering yet so I can’t photograph it but it looks a bit of a mutant and lacks the charm of the simpler, more natural forms in my eyes.

In this country, if you want to see snowdrops in all their glory, the place to go to is Maple Glen where Muriel Davison has built up extensive plantings in her large garden. Unfortunately for northerners, it is sited at Wyndham between Gore and Invercargill so few of us are likely to make it at the right time. Or time a late winter trip to the UK. For years I had a photo a reader sent me of a carpet of snowdrops (and we are talking bulbs in the magnitude of five to six figures all in bloom at the same time) beneath white barked birches somewhere in England.

So I know that our snowdrop efforts here are modest by those standards. But we have snowdrops, and quite a few of them now. The one variety that performs consistently well in our conditions, flowering reliably every year and building up readily, is Galanthus S. Arnott. Apparently it is equally good in the UK because it has been given an Award of Garden Merit from the Royal Horticultural Society.

The peak flowering season is not a long one. It is just enchanting while it lasts and snowdrops lend themselves to drifts in garden borders, on woodland margins, in our growing bulb hillside (coming through the grass) as well as being featured in rockery pockets. They flower at a time when there is not a lot else out. While typically regarded as harbingers of spring, they are more mid winter. We keep gently spreading them further afield in the garden. Many British gardens open in February for what is often called a snowdrop weekend. That is the aim here. It may take us another decade to get sufficient carpets of snowdrops to warrant declaring snowdrop weekend, but we could never be accused of taking the short term view of gardening. And we are well on the way.

Curiously with snowdrops, the practice is to lift, divide and replant soon after flowering. There aren’t many bulbs where you are advised to move them in full growth. In England they are often sold as “green bundles” when still in growth. I have taken from this that they are not fussy so I move them any time now – whether dormant or at any stage of growth. Typical of all bulbs, they need good drainage and reasonable light levels. Woodlands overseas are largely deciduous which means they have more light. Our dominance of evergreens in this country leans us more towards forest than woodland. That is why we go for planting the margins rather than the depths.

Finally, just for clarification, what is often referred to as a snowdrop in New Zealand is an entirely different family. The leucojum is much stronger growing, often found in old homestead paddocks, associating with daffodils. It has the little cup without the surrounding skirt of petals and is less refined than a proper snowdrop. Notwithstanding that, it is an under-rated garden plant with a very long flowering season. But it is a snowflake not a snowdrop.

Snowflake (leucojum) to the left and snowdrop (galanthus) to the right

Snowflake (leucojum) to the left and snowdrop (galanthus) to the right

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

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