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Forerunners of Spring
"One of my most ecstatic gardening moments happened in winter, with no June roses in sight," says author Carol Williams. "A small, pink-faced boy in a woolly hat ran into the kitchen, falling over himself to shout, 'Mom! A flower!' and drag me outside. It was a snowdrop, of course, in the edge of a gray snowdrift near the door.
"When days are short, gloomy, and cold, snowdrops tell us they are getting longer, brighter, warmer. Snowdrops speak of spring in code, with their clear, wake-up-bell shapes and the mysterious green mark on their milk-white inner petals. Yes, they bloom right through the snow. I plant them where they can’t be missed: near a door or path. Children have the spotting advantage, since most snowdrops grow about four inches tall. They appear sometimes in January, usually in February; a sequence of species will continue for up to six weeks, luring us all outside."
Pictured, masses of snowdrops, grow at Winterthur, a 60-acre garden, museum, and library in Delaware (winterthur.org). Most are naturalized Galanthus elwesii and G. nivalis.
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A Mix of Snowdrops
Anyone in Zones 2 to 7 with any yard at all can grow snowdrops. Unlike other bulbs, such as tulips, they are despised by deer. Plant the bulbs -- four inches deep and at least four apart -- as soon as you get them in fall; they should not dry out. Snowdrops are easier to see when clustered together. No need to be extravagant: Five mature bulbs planted in fall will be five flowering plants in several months, and up to 15 in four years if they are happy and multiply. Some gardeners intersperse them with colorful early crocuses, but I like my snowdrops served straight.
Here, some are interplanted with early crocuses.
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Large Flowered Snowdrops
Snowdrops prefer summer shade and winter sun. So I plant them under trees or shrubs (not evergreens). Or I grow them sheltered by later perennials that leaf out above them such as daylilies or hostas, and get double use from the spot. Given well-draining soil conditions and no puddles, they will spread in loose drifts, their seeds perhaps even carried by ants. Very thick clumps should be dug up with a sharp spade every few years after flowers fade and then carefully divided. I replant them here and there or give a few divisions to friends. This spring method is called planting “in the green.”
Here, large-flowered Galanthus elwesii is usually the earliest and very reliable. It grows taller, up to 10 inches high.
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Double Petaled Snowdrops
I buy the simple species Galanthus elwesii (often the earliest) or G. nivalis (smaller with delicate leaves, fairies dancing on green legs); these are the most likely to spread. Good bulb catalogs have branched out to carry half a dozen snowdrop cultivars. Some are double petaled; some are taller; some have more green splotches or scent. All are fun to try.
Here, ‘Flore Pleno’ is a double version with flowers layered like frilly petticoats.
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A cult of snowdrop fanciers (galanthophiles), like the tulip maniacs of the 17th century, has been growing recently. They meet in one another’s gardens or at esoteric snowdrop lunches to swap rare bulbs: those with unusual tints or recurved petals or even tiny tusks. Many are indistinguishable from a few feet away but have their own fascinations close in. Sometimes I think I’ll be drawn down that obsessive path. In mid- to late winter the smallest, most common snowdrop does the trick. A flower! How miraculous that the first one of the year should be so sublime a beauty.
Here, G. ikariae is a lovely species with bold green leaves; it grows to less than six inches tall.
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Delicate G. nivalis is the best-known snowdrop and is quick to spread.
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G. ‘Viridapice’ has subtle green shadings on the tips of its outer and inner petals.