Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Plants with Winter Interest - Part 2 - Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis)

Please welcome fellow Franklin County Master Gardener (class of 1998), Certified PA Horticulturist, and Landscape Designer Jill Hudock to the blog.  Jill has been instrumental over the years in helping us design the award winning Falling Spring Nursing Home Garden, the John Brown House Garden, and is working with Bill and Cindy Stead on the plans for the Patrick Gass Garden.  If you've ever attended the fall Landscape Design series of classes, you've seen Jill as one of the instructors and expert reviewers of your personal landscape plan.  The Shippensburg Peace Garden is also on Jill's list of accomplishments.  I'm recruiting Jill to join us as a regular contributor.  Here's Jill on snowdrops, Galanthus nivalis.

Snowdrops (Glanthus nivalis)
How appropriate! It’s winter, lightly snowing, and my Galanthus nivalis have poked their nodding heads through the mulch, greeting me with drooping, pure white petals. Snowdrops are one of nature’s gifts that I never tire of…a late Christmas present!

The common snowdrop grows only to 6 inches, a “short” introduction to the upcoming bulb season. Its strappy, blue-green leaves cluster around the flower stalk that can produce a slightly scented winter wonder which lasts for weeks.

Comfortable in hardiness zones 4-9, the common snowdrop is a reliable performer. In my zone 6b garden, they have slowly increased their numbers. They are excellent choices for areas viewed from inside the home, to be seen while the gardener is toasty warm, preferably sipping hot chocolate, in order to invite the accompanying appreciation for blooms produced under such frigid conditions.

Snowdrops represent a genus of 19 or more small bulbs (those intrepid plant hunters are always discovering more ways to tempt us!). Native to Europe and western Asia, their botanical genus name, Galanthus, comes from the Greek for ‘milkflower’. Nivalis is Latin for ‘of the snow’. The “milkflower of the snow” does indeed look like 3 large drops of milk hanging from a stem. Common names such as Candlemas, February fairmaids and Dingle dangle are informative as well as entertaining. My favorite is Flower of Hope.

Snowdrops represent purity and a clean beginning to the new year.

Galanthus nivalis will naturalize in lightly shaded woodlands as well as lawns without becoming invasive. By the time the lawn requires mowing, snowdrop flowers have been long gone, their leaves turning yellow and finally withering away. For those who live and try to co-exist with deer, snowdrops are not on their main menu so a forest-like setting, carpeted by snowdrops is ideal.

Plant them any time from mid-October until the ground freezes. They appreciate rich, moist, well-drained soil located in sun to partial shade. Me, too! And while my garden has finally reached that exalted state (at least in the spot where my snowdrops grow), it’s taken 15 years for that to happen. If I had mixed in compost more often I’m sure I would’ve arrived at optimum condition much, much sooner. Luckily my snowdrops were not offended by my poor soil, as they’ve survived.

Snowdrops like regular moisture during their growing season, especially if you’d like to increase your crop. You can spread their seeds or divide the bulb clumps after flowering. This is something I haven’t done, maybe because I’m too comfy with my hot chocolate! The British gardeners at Colesbourne Park have been much more ambitious than I have been. You can see their lovely photos at

Snowdrops planted en masse are an unforgettable winter/ early spring sight.

You can also use them as cut flowers. While they’re not as showy as poinsettias or the Christmas cactus, they do provide an elegant statement. Take a sniff too, while you’re at it. Not all have a fragrance, so if that’s important to you a little research would be in order to ensure satisfaction. You will find numerous choices available. And, apparently, if you want something a bit more exotic than the common types, you’ll pay a pretty penny for them. Of course.

If the snowdrop becomes an obsession you may consider yourself a “galanthophile.” Not something you would lead with when meeting a new person but the term aptly applies to any snowdrop lover. And if you want to extend your pleasure, consider planting a later, spring flowering genus, Leucojum aestivum (common name “Summer Snowflake”).

While the two types (Galanthus and Leucojum) are classified into two separate genera, they are very similar in appearance. I adore Summer Snowflake’s taller (18”), larger drooping bell-like clusters with their petals marked with a dainty green dot. Their simple charm always makes me smile. A special shady spot, set aside for them under a deciduous tree, marks their importance. I will have them in my garden forever. The winter/spring sun warms their soil early, allowing them to flower well.

On a more serious botanical note, it’s worthwhile to mention that Galanthus, Leucojum, Narcissus (daffodil), Lycoris squamigera  (naked lady) and Lycoris radiata (spider lily) contain the chemical compound galatamine. Galatamine is a potent anti-Alzheimer combatant, as well as a post-polio treatment. It eases neuromuscular conditions such as neuritis and neuralgia. The compound sold under the name Nivalin until 2000 when it was then trade named Reminyl. It’s now approved by the FDA to treat mild to moderate Alzheimer cases as well as a general nutritional supplement. While our dear snowdrops were an original source of this important compound, it’s now being primarily obtained from Narcissus and Leucojum, in addition to being synthetically produced.

No wonder they called it “Flower of Hope”! It is gratifying to know that something that blooms so sublimely in the coldest time of year is more than just a cure for the winter blues. I look at my little ones with a newfound respect. There they are: strong, pure and happy…opening the door to another glorious gardening season yet to come. And truly, what more could a gardener hope for?

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