Galanthus – Snowdrops

Delicate Snowdrops

Delicate Snowdrops

There are around 20 species of Snowdrops. For the plant buffs among you the genus is ‘Galanthus‘ and the family is ‘Amaryllidaceae‘. For the none plant buffs every snowdrop name starts with Galanthus and another word or two. The first word tells you it is a snowdrop and the following words which species or variety. The word Galanthus is often shortened just to a G so you might see a plant name like this; G. Nivalis.

The plants have a distinctive appearance, two long thin green leaves and a single white flower who’s weight makes it drop towards the ground. The flower petals are always white. The petals form an external ring and then three more a tighter interior ring with green tips. The external ring is composed of three petals or 6 in the case of double varieties.

The vast majority of the species will flower in winter or very early spring but a few species flower in autumn.  Of the early flowering varieties, they can flower through snow hence their name. All snowdrops grow from bulbs and the bulbs propagate freely when the bulbs divide underground. They naturally form large drifts over time as their bulbs grow and divide. Of course snowdrops can also propagate via seeds when suitable pollinators are available to them.

Garden Varieties

Here are the Royal Horticultural Societies top 10 Snowdrop species chosen because they are easy to grow and beautiful. Most varieties are single petal versions however there are some very impressive double varieties. A great one is Galanthus nivalis f. pleniflorus ‘Flore Pleno’.  Another interesting variety is the ‘Walrus’ (another cultivar of Galanthus nivalis) it is green with a white border to the petals and it appears variegated from above.  Another cultivar to look out for is the Lady Elphinstone which is a double petal version with gold/yellow central petals. It looks like a cross between a snowdrop and a daffodil.

G. nivalis 'Flore Pleno'

G. nivalis ‘Flore Pleno’

Galanthus 'Walrus'

Galanthus ‘Walrus’

Galanthus nivalis 'Lady Elphinstone'

Galanthus nivalis ‘Lady Elphinstone’

Snowdrop Walks

There are some locations in the UK with spectacular swathes of snowdrops. The best time to see the plants varies with the weather each year but the season is January to March.  The National Trust also has a great webpage which collects Top Spots for Snowdrops split by UK region. If you fall in love with Woodland carpeted with Snowdrops why not buy your own! Managed Woodland is a sensible investment so you can justify all the fun & pride involved in owning and managing a piece of wild Britain. You can plant snowdrops, bluebells and encourage plenty of wildlife whilst enjoying your own private rambles, picnics and parties!

Snowdrop Drift

Snowdrop Drift

Protection

Kew Gardens states that “All snowdrops (Galanthus spp.) are included in CITES  (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna)  Appendix II, which lists plants that are not currently under threat of extinction, but which should have their trade monitored and regulated to ensure wild populations are not endangered.”

It is important to understand that most species are only endangered in their natural habitats where loss of habitat and bulb lifting have vastly reduced natural populations. To ensure you are not making this situation worse make sure you get your plants from a source that is not going to cause further damage or decimate wild populations. Ask a friend or neighbour for some of their garden bulbs or a lifted clump (in the green). Only buy plants and seeds from suppliers who are registered with horticultural organisations and provide known provenance stock.

Snowdrops at Castle Ward

Snowdrops at Castle Ward

Geographical Distribution

The plants are native to Europe and the Middle East however the vast majority of species are actually from the Middle East with only about 5 species being truly native to Europe. Of those 5, only one species was widely native to Europe (Galanthus Rivalis) the other four (G. Reginae-olgae, G. Elwesii, G. Gracilis and D. Plicatus) are native to small areas of Greece, Italy and the Ukraine.

Surprisingly no species of snowdrop is actually considered to be truly native to the UK.  Whereas some experts think the Romans brought the plant with them other people think it was introduced as late as the 16th century.

Today the plant, particularly G. Nivalis, is widespread throughout Europe and North America due to it’s popularity as a garden plant.