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Snowdrops (Galanthus species): A Letter from Sylvia

single-snowdrops-feb10.jpg

We’ve received a letter from Sylvia on a bulb I know very little about – snowdrops. And it explains why my few spasmodic attempts to grow them have failed.

Pomona,

Snowdrops are a common flower in the UK; I don’t mean the hundreds of expensive varieties with very little difference, that galanthophiles (collectors of snowdrops) love. I mean our single snowdrop Galanthus nivalis, which is found in hedgerows, woods, and gardens. Apparently snowdrops were introduced to Britain in the dim and distant past and naturalised clumps are a sign that there has been occupation at sometime in the last 1,000 years (more or less depending on what you are reading).

My first memory of snowdrops is on our farm, where I lived as a child, the wood on a small hill was covered in snowdrops. I wonder who lived there and when – no sign of occupation now. Snowdrops will always conjure up the memory of my childhood and that wood, now gone. One of the owners after us, dug them up and sold them! One day I will go back to see if just a few survived, you never know, snowdrops are survivors. Snowdrops increase by seed as well as producing new bulbs as offsets which is why they spread very gently over time.

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Fast forward a lot of years to my own garden. I buy snowdrops ‘in the green’ at this time of year, they are dug from the field and posted, this way the bulbs do not dry out. I am not sure why you can buy dry bulbs because their success rate if very low, less than 10% in my experience. The galanthophiles like to transplant in June after the leaves have died down. I do find that bulbs take a while to settle, the first year after planting I will get a few flowers, but the year after the clumps will start expanding.

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They like shade and moist soil, which is why they are often found in woodland. They also thrive in woodlands because they don’t get disturbed. I find they don’t like being moved (although I have seen lots of advice to divide them each year), so I am careful where I plant them – I don’t want to dig them up each year. I have snowdrops under a shrub, where they are planted with hellebores and pulmonaria and either side of a new (2008/9) path. On one side I put all the snowdrops I had to move when we took a hedge out, these are flowering sparsely this year and on the other side of the path I have just planted 100 bulbs.

I have one other variety of snowdrop, the double form Galanthus nivalis f. pleniflorus  ‘Flore Pleno’. These are planted under a small weeping willow, Salix caprea ‘Kilmarnock’, they are completely shaded in the summer, not ideal, but they manage to flower each year. The double form are lovely but do not have the memories or magic of the single form, for me anyway. These are really winter flowering coming out at the end of January just as we are often having some of our coldest weather but as the days are beginning to lengthen and the sun gets higher. They are the first to flower in the new year and they shine aainst the dark earth in my garden but they are also seen in lawns and with green leaves and ferns in the hedgerows and banks.

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Galanthus nivalis f. pleniflorus  ‘Flore Pleno’

Do you have somewhere to plan snowdrops? Somewhere cool, shady and moist – where they won’t mind the heat of summer. I think in your climate they would need to be slightly moist. Similar conditions to your moss bank, they look lovely growing out of moss! The leaves of G. nivalis are not too big, so though they are around until May, they are not obtrusive. They are happy in pots as well, this is how galanthophiles often grow theirs. I have never grown them in pots, I want them in the garden where I can see their ‘beacons of hope’ or along the roadsides where the little white flowers stand out reminding me that spring will soon be here.

Best wishes,

Sylvia

 clump-feb09.jpg

{ 9 comments… add one }

  • Pomona Belvedere February 23, 2010, 12:52 pm

    Sylvia, I love the idea of growing snowdrops in moss! And you’ve explained a lot about why I was never successful with snowdrops. For one thing, I put them where they would dry out in summer, as many bulbs like this treatment and at the time I was gardening in a low-water situation. And most importantly, I never knew about planting ‘in the green’, which is why I never got even a single flower in the first year, when they were well-watered by winter rains.

    I can understand why you prefer the little species form you first met as a child. It is often the simplest form of a flower that holds the deepest magic.

  • Sylvia (England) February 24, 2010, 4:12 am

    Pomona, Thank you for putting up this post, I do appreciate it. I hope you have better luck with snowdrops, planting them ‘in-the-green’ works for me but they are easy to buy in the UK. I do hope you plant snowdrops in your moss, they will love it and look beautiful.

    Best wishes Sylvia

  • Anna February 25, 2010, 2:28 pm

    I enjoyed your letter Sylvia though was saddened to read about the disappearance of the snowdrops from your childhood days. Although I must confess to having a small collection of named snowdrops, nothing beats the magic of my clumps of galanthus nivalis. I hope that you manage to establish some Pomona.

  • Deborah at Kilbourne Grove February 26, 2010, 3:56 am

    Sylvia, thank you, thank you for this post. I am in love with snowdrops. Not sure why, I must have seen a photograph that touched me as they are not very common in Canada. Every garden I have owned, I have planted them, but my husband has always been transferred before I could see them bulk up much. You cannot buy them “in the green” here, only as dry bulbs, expensive, 25p per bulb, and you are right, the failure rate is very high. I am very envious of the snowdrop walks and the named varities you have in the UK. Would so love to see one here.

  • Frances February 26, 2010, 4:15 am

    Oh Sylvia and Pomona, thanks so much for this enlightening post! I have tried and tried with them, here and at other homes, with minimal success. We cannot buy them in the green here at all, only as dried bulbs in the fall like tulips and daffs. Knowing about the moisture needs helps, and we have plenty of moss. We will keep trying though, they are worth the effort. You childhood memories of them are priceless. I would imagine a few might still be growing there, it is difficult to get every last bit when digging bulbs. Let us hope so. :-)
    Frances

  • Sylvia (England) February 26, 2010, 5:21 am

    Anna, I am glad you enjoy all snowdrops. I did worry that my post would sound negative towards collectors – I didn’t want it to. I just wanted to express the magic I feel from large clumps of G nivalis.

    Deborah and Frances. Pomona mentioned that she has bought some waxed, which may solve the problem. If you can’t buy them in pots or in-the-green, try something else there are lots of beautiful plants. Don’t waste your money on dry snowdrops bulbs.

    Anyone reading this – there is a market for snowdrops in US and Canada! Grow them in pots, sell in flower and make a fortune!

    Best wishes Sylvia

  • Sylvia (England) February 26, 2010, 5:46 am

    Deborah, to answer your question about how snowdrops are posted. They are simply dug up, wrapped in a bit of newspaper and posted, first class post usually comes the next day. I left them like that for a day or so until the weekend when I planted them. The problem of sending them internationally is there is still a little bit of soil on the bulbs and roots, which is not allowed. Keep looking I am sure you will find someone who sells them eventually.

    Best wishes Sylvia

  • Cyd February 28, 2010, 11:10 am

    I love snowdrops! Thank you Pomona and Sylvia for a great post. I have three blooming right now and I’ll consider myself lucky after reading about their English habits.

  • Sylvia (England) March 4, 2010, 5:44 am

    Cyd, thank you for your lovely comment. I am glad you have snowdrops especially as so many gardeners are having problems buying them.

    Deborah, thank you for the link and the lovely compliment. I had read your post and hope lots of people will follow your link above. Someone must be able to help you get some snowdrops.

    Best wishes Sylvia

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