Saturday, 26 February 2022

Snowdrops - a slow-growing obsession

Snowdrops (galanthus) evoke so much excitement that a name has been christened for people who passionately collect them - galanthophiles. I don’t consider myself in that league, but in recent years I have come to appreciate the differences in their flower forms and have very gradually been adding to our little assortment.

Galanthus nivalis, the common snowdrop

There can be no doubt that these diminutive flowers bring us joy out of all proportion to their size at a time of year when little else is in flower. They are also incredibly resilient to the worst that the weather can throw at them - I watched from my kitchen window as they were buffeted by the recent high winds from storms Dudley, Eunice, and Franklin with barely a scratch.

Galanthus nivalis. Photo by Pete Stevens

My small collection started with our common snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis. The name is derived from two Greek words: 'gala' meaning milk and 'anthos' meaning flower. Nivalis is a Latin word meaning 'of the snow'. Very apt as they are so at home in the wintry months - can there be a sight more heart-warming than their dainty heads poking out above a carpet of snow?
Galanthus nivalis in the snow. Photo by Pete Stevens

I bought both dry bulbs and bulbs 'in the green', which are plants that have just finished flowering. I had success with both, but I prefer planting snowdrops in the green as I find them easier to arrange in natural-looking clumps. I have an unconscious habit of arranging dry bulbs in a grid pattern, no matter how hard I try for a random distribution.

Snowdrops can be grown from seed with considerable patience - it takes around four years for a seed to produce a flower. In our garden we have allowed nature to take its course and single flowers have popped up in unexpected places. The seeds have an oil-rich substance attached which is attractive to ants, who take it back to their nest, eat the substance and discard the seed. Sadly, no seedlings to excite a galanthophile have emerged - yet!

Galanthus nivalis and Crocus tommasinianus
Photo by Pete Stevens

The quickest and easiest way to increase your collection of snowdrops is to allow them to form a large clump, dig them up, carefully divide them into smaller clumps and then replant them. Do this after they have finished flowering. I started with 500 bulbs of Galanthus nivalis in the green and over five or six years and with regular dividing they have multiplied at least three-fold.

Galanthus nivalis underneath white stemmed Betula jacquemontii Doorenbos

The snowdrops that I grow seem reasonably unfussy about location and soil - we have fairly free draining loam with lots of stones. They all get some sun (if it decides to make an appearance) as they are located below deciduous trees. I recommend planting on a slope if you can, somewhere close to a path, so that you can appreciate the detail without having to tip the flower upwards or lie on the ground. They are happy in grass, but don't mow the lawn until the leaves have died back and returned important nutrients to the bulb for next year.

Galanthus nivalis

I take great pleasure from our drifts of the common snowdrop, but early bulb catalogues with more exotic snowdrop varieties started to attract my attention. Conscious of how easy it could be to catch galanthomania, I have valiantly restricted myself to one new variety per year (and to those at the lower end of the price range!). Below are photos of our very small but select collection.
       Galanthus Trymposter. Planted in the green in 2021 and flowering well this year.
Galanthus Trymposter from below
Galanthus Hippolyta from below. Planted in 2018 and slowly clumping up.
Photo by Pete Stevens
Galanthus Hippolyta from above

Galanthus nivalis Viridapice
Photo by Pete Stevens
Galanthus Brenda Troyle, similar to nivalis but much larger flowers
Galanthus Colossus. Large flowers and thick leaves
Galanthus Washfield Wareham
A very late flowering snowdrop that has only just started to open

Three 'in the green' bulbs of Galanthus Wasp arrived in the post a few days ago, a snowdrop with very long slender outer petals that I have been lusting after for a couple of years. I will plant them on the slope underneath our Magnolia x loebneri Leonard Messel, in company with Brenda Troyle, Colossus and Trymposter. Now its time to put the catalogues away until next year!

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