In the Garden:
Snowdrops may be small, but in the middle of winter they cheer the gardener's heart.
The Virtue of Small Things
With 26 columns to write each year, I carefully consider my subjects and try to cover as many of the wide range of gardening topics as possible. I had completed all of my research for this particular column on a topic that I thought held particular merit, when something quite small in the garden caught my eye. But just as anyone who has ever read The Te of Piglet by Benjamin Hoff knows, there is virtue in the small and modest. And what can be more glorious and inspiring than the pristine blooms of the diminutive snowdrop on a January day?
Certainly, there are other plants and even other flowers to pique our interest during these frigid months, but the simple purity of the snowdrop seems to take one's breath away more than most. If you have not grown it previously, take heed and plant some this year. And if they are already in your garden, be sure to take the time to admire them, perhaps even bringing a small bouquet inside. Fortunately for us, the snowdrop is easy to grow and can spread with some alacrity, although never invasively.
Getting to Know the Snowdrop
The snowdrop belongs to the genus Galanthus, which is a member of the Amaryllis family. There are about 20 species, with their native habitats extending from Europe east to the Caucasus, and from northern Russia and Denmark south to the Greek islands. They are generally inhabitants of deciduous woodlands. For its trait of often appearing through the snow, the French call it "pierce neige," while its Latin name is derived from the Greek works "gala" and "anthos," or "milk flower." The first written reference to it as "snowdrop" was in the 1633 edition of Gerard's Herbal, revised by Thomas Johnson.
Growing 4 to 6 inches or so tall, the snowdrop has strap-like leaves of various shades of green, depending on the species. Each thin, flattened flower stalk bears a drooping, lightly fragrant flower with three oval, milky white outer segments surrounding three shorter inner segments that form a tubular shape and are marked with bright green. The flowers last for several weeks, even surviving wintry blasts and snowfalls.
Very few species or cultivars are readily available. The one most often seen is Galanthus nivalis, or the common snowdrop. It has a horseshoe shape of green on the inner segments, and does best with cooler, moister conditions.
Galanthus elwesii, with slightly larger flowers, is native to Greece and western Turkey. The flowers have a second patch of green on the inner segments, the leaves are blue-green, and the plants can withstand hotter, drier conditions. Galanthus ikariae differs in that the foliage decidedly curves and is dark green. Also, the flowers have a distinct sweet, mossy perfume.
Although gardening books often say that it is intolerant of heat, the snowdrop seems to have no problem with our hot, humid summers, as long as it's grown in light to moderate shade. The preferred place to plant is under shrubs, particularly ones that are close to the house where the snowdrops can be readily seen during the winter when forays to the outer edges of the property are less frequent.
Humus-rich, well-drained soil is ideal. Before planting, enrich the soil with compost or well-decayed manure. Because they bloom so early, the 1-inch bulbs should also be planted early in the fall, no later than September. Set them 3 to 4 inches deep and the same distance apart. Plant in clusters, preferably of a half dozen or so. Mulch the area each year with compost or decayed manure. My preference is to plant them alone, but they make good companions for winter aconites and chionodoxas, two other diminutive winter-blooming bulbs.
Snowdrops develop new offset bulbs, and after four or five years the clumps can be divided, if desired, but it is not necessary. Some references say to dig up and replant the clumps while they are still flowering, while others recommend division as soon as flowers fade or no later than April. Either way, it's important to replant immediately, splitting the clumps into sections with three or four bulbs.
My snowdrops do not always bloom as early as they did this year, when a warm, rainy spell enticed them upwards, but just like a friend we only hear from occasionally, they are always welcome whenever they arrive.
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