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Super snowdrops for every garden

February 15, 2024
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Everybody loves snowdrops; they brighten up those dull, dreary days of midwinter. And most of you will have at least some snowdrops in your garden, probably the common snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) which carpets the floor of many a woodland and wayside in most parts of the British Isles. And you may well be happy to grow just these and eschew the multitude of other sorts whose acquisition is pursued with vigour and determination by the dedicated gaggle of galanthophiles. Unlike the crazes for some other genera, Corydalis and silver saxifrages come to mind, this is no temporary infatuation. There have always been snowdrop ‘nuts’ and the hobby sees no sign of diminishing in its appeal. And yet, for many a snowdrop is a snowdrop, is a snowdrop.

If you are a galanthophile then this little article will have little to offer. I shall only describe well-known varieties that are available from specialist nurserymen. Also, because I prefer single-flowered snowdrops I have not included any of the many doubles available. Neither will my words appeal to those who will never wish to grow any but the common snowdrop. But for those looking to grow a few distinct, easy and interesting varieties, it may hopefully be of more interest.

Galanthus nivalis has naturalised in many parts of the UK

Snowdrop occurrence and variability

The species

At the latest count 23 species of Galanthus have been described in the wild. The common snowdrop (G. nivalis) has by far the widest ranging occurrence. It is native to most of  Europe and has been introduced and is widely naturalised elsewhere. You may be surprised to know that although it is often thought of as a British native wild flower it was probably not introduced until the early sixteenth century. Most other snowdrop species are from the eastern Mediterranean. Several are found in the Caucasus in southern Russia, Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. A few others are found in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Turkey, and, perhaps, Palestine.

The cultivated varieties (cultivars)

Given the few species it is perhaps surprising to learn that more than two thousand varieties have been described! That in itself is a firm indictor if any were needed of the enduring interest in these humble little flowers. Of course, many varieties have come and gone and can no longer be obtained. Others are indistinct and in some cases were definitely not worth naming. But that leaves lots that are in cultivation and worth growing. And that number is ever-increasing as more and more new variants are found and described. This is not surprising, as any large collection is likely to turn up interesting new forms from time to time.

These new selections are often seized upon by their proud owners, their virtues extolled, and names given. Initially they are inevitably rare and are often passed around between fellow enthusiasts. If they are particularly distinct they may be offered for sale, usually on the Internet. In recent years, in notorious cases, money running into hundreds or even in a few cases thousands of pounds has been asked for single bulbs! Perhaps needless to say, the species and varieties that I shall describe are not among these. Some may be tens of pounds each, but most will be a lot less. And if your interest grows, as is likely, as you acquire more different sorts you can hopefully begin to swap spare bulbs at no cost to either party. Most of my best snowdrops have been obtained in this way and I have made new friends along the way.

My shortlist of easily obtainable favourites

Forms of Galanthus nivalis (Common snowdrop)

I must start with the common snowdrop as it is where we all begin when wanting to know and grow more of the genus. Also, most of the many selected cultivars in cultivation are forms of this species. So I have to be very selective in making a choice. It is based on personal appeal – you would almost certainly choose a different set – vigour and willingness to increase without undue attention, and availability at a reasonable price. Those shown here should grow and increase in the open garden in any decent soil without the need for cosseting. That is not to say that they need necessarily increase quickly, some varieties, especially those with gold markings rather than green, grow slowly for lack of chlorophyll. That’s OK as long as they make decent clumps eventually. What I won’t tolerate is snowdrops that need mollycoddling if they are not to dwindle and eventually disappear.

Galanthus nivalis ‘Straffan’

This glorious mid-season snowdrop is one of the oldest cultivars as it was found and introduced from Crimea in 1856. It is very easy to please and soon develops into large clumps. Unlike many cultivars, bulbs of ‘Straffan’ often produce two flowering scapes.

Galanthus nivalis 'Straffan'

Galanthus nivalis 'Straffan'

Galanthus nivalis ‘S. Arnott’

This fine, vigorous mid-season snowdrop carries its age well, for it was selected over a century ago. It is one of the best in our garden. There is nothing special about it except that the flowers are big and fine, carried well clear of the abundant foliage. And it is readily available and cheap!

Galanthus nivalis ‘South Hayes’

This is probably the most expensive of those I describe. But it represents a group of cultivars that is becoming increasingly popular as more variations on the general theme appear and are named. The correct description is that this is a poculiform (vase or goblet shaped) snowdrop. The tepals (petals to you and me) are flared rather than curving inwards at their tips. And instead of having outer and inner rings of three tepals each, they have six tepals in one ring.

Some poculiforms are plain white on the outside, a few recent (costly!) variants have yellow markings, most are white with green splashes. In all cases the position and depth of the markings varies from flower to flower and season to season. Galanthus ‘South Hayes’ and its look-alikes (the ‘Trym’ group of cultivars are equally good) are as easy to grow as the common sorts.

Galanthus nivalis 'South Hayes'

Galanthus nivalis 'South Hayes'

Galanthus nivalis Sandersii Group

Occasionally, if one searches hard enough, one can find a yellow snowdrop, or perhaps more than one, among a colony of the normal green form. For some reason which I have yet to see fully explained, they seem to be much more common in the NE of England, notably Northumberland, than elsewhere. These are usually grouped together as ‘Sandersii Group’.

There are also many yellow forms that have been discovered in cultivation or bred and selected intentionally. Some are beautiful and quite vigorous, and not all are forms of  ‘pure’ G. nivalis, being selections of other species, or hybrids. I grow quite a few but none gives me more pleasure than the simple, small-flowered form that I had many years ago from a friend who lives in Northumberland. I’m sure you will agree after looking at the accompanying illustration that it is a real charmer. Due to limitations of space, and my self-imposed bar on expensive cultivars, I am not showing you any others.

Galanthus nivalis f. sandersii

Galanthus nivalis f. sandersii

Galanthus elwesii ‘Cedric’s Prolific’

Galanthus elwesii is commonly known as the Giant snowdrop, or Crimean snowdrop. It is certainly taller than G. nivalis, but the flowers (except in some selected forms and hybrids) are no bigger. The foliage is usually more glaucous and broader than that of the common snowdrop. Most forms flower either before or in the early part of the snowdrop season. That shown here occurred in the garden of the late Cedric Morris, a famous grower and breeder of many plants, especially bulbs and irises. Its name tells you why I am so fond of it, prolific it is, soon building up good clumps.

Galanthus elwesii 'Cedric's Prolific'

Galanthus elwesii 'Cedric's Prolific'

Galanthus plicatus ‘Augustus’

Galanthus plicatus is a very distinctive species. The leaves, which may be bluish, grey or green are pleated and curled inwards at their edges, hence the species epithet. It is native to eastern Europe (including Ukraine) and western Asia. The large flowers have three pure white, attractively dimpled outer tepals, the inner three are shorter with one or two green marks above the notch.

Galanthus plicatus ‘Augustus’ (named for the famous 20th century gardener and snowdrop enthusiast, Edward Augustus Bowles) is a very fine form. It holds its large, boldly marked flowers on short stalks above shiny green leaves. Coming mostly from shady places in nature it is a good plant to try in fairly deep shade, but will also flourish (and flower better) in the open.

Galanthus plicatus 'Augustus'

Galanthus plicatus 'Augustus'

Galanthus ikariae 

This species is limited in the wild to a few Aegean islands, including Ikaria from which it was first described in the 1880s. It is very similar to, and sometimes regarded as being synonymous with, Galanthus woronowii. As the illustration shows, this is a very fine snowdrop with large globular flowers carrying strong green markings on the inner tepals. It has spread well for me under high shade from a cedar tree.

If you want to learn more about snowdrops, how to propagate them and a discover a other varieties worth growing visit this page on our website.

Author: John Good

John Good