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 tiny white flowers with bright green leaves are just emerging from the frozen soil. Snowdrops, or Galanthus, are for many the harbingers of spring. For me, their sudden appearance in winter is a perfect symbol of resilience as, one by one, they infuse the cold weather months with a new kind of meaning.

To be sure, 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 to life. Louise Glück’s poem articulates this idea beautifully.

This poem always motivates me to go out and do something big. 

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 is grown 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 consist of three small petals surrounded by three larger ones. Close-up, you can see that the inner three are notched at the tip and have distinctive 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 CAN THEY GROW IN THE COLD? 

When winter sets in, most plants stop growing as freezing temperatures prevent water from flowing within their sap. However, snowdrops contain anti-freeze proteins (AFPs) that enable them to survive even in subzero weather. These AFPs bind to small ice crystals and inhibit them from growing. 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 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 TO TELL SNOWDROPS FROM SNOWFLAKES 

A few years ago, I began 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) 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 your location can be anytime between April and very early May. Leucojum aestivum ‘Gravetye Giant’ is a popular cultivar.

HOW TO GROW SNOWDROPS

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

Once they finish flowering, it’s best to leave the foliage on the plant until it turns yellow. This allows them to store nutrients for next year’s blooms.

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…

Photos/Shutterstock.com

 

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