A Gardening Journal

Snowdrops for Sophisticates

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My snowdrop is up! That Galanthus foliage has emerged is normally the least newsworthy garden story of late Winter. Most gardens have snowdrops; they self-seed easily. And they look after themselves—not least, by sending up leaves and flowers while Winter is still bitter—without flinching, without hesitation.

 

But this snowdrop is not normal. This one bulb cost me about $20 dollars last March, when I ordered it and two equally-pricey comrades. (Yes, for nearly $70 dollars, I received three individual snowdrop bulbs, one each of three cultivars.) This one is Galanthus plicatus 'Baxendale's Late'—and Baxendale IS late, so late that I worried if it had established at all.

 

For $20 dollars for a bulb no bigger than my thumbnail, suspense is stressful.

 

Below is the prissiest of the lot, Galanthus nivalis 'Blewbury Tart'. It appeared in Blewbury (not "blueberry"), a hamlet in Oxfordshire, England. Its double flowers are thought to look like little green tarts. As I say, prissy.

 

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The last, for the moment, is Galanthus nivalis 'S. Arnott'. It alone seems to have been intending to produce a flower in this, its first season for flowering here in southern New England. But the stem became broken, so no bloom in 2013.

 

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Indeed, no flowers in 2013 at all for these three fancy snowdrops. This isn't unusual; Galanthus are as famous for being so vigorous that they need to be divided every other year, as they are for taking a year or two to settle down and start flowering.

 

For this year, then, the show of my trio of "snowdrops for sophisticates" is entirely one of foliage. And you can see that, if leaves were all there were to these plants, none of us would ever grow them. In the picture below, taken two weeks after the first, the leaves of 'Blewbury Tart' have enlarged a bit. Oh, boy.

 

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Fortunately, the pendulous white-and-green flowers of snowdrops are a tiny but pulsating-with-excitement world of details best appreciated under low magnification. Just the thing for a plant that flowers when Winter is still with us: The most important features are so small and, often, so subtle that you need to kneel, in the cold and the muck, even to see them.

 

To any sane person, only a hopeless, helpless, geek could be susceptible to these plants' chilly, diminutive, awkward-to-appreciate temptations. Guilty as charged!

 

Here's how to grow these hardy and oh-so-early bulbs:

 

Latin Name

Galanthus nivalis 'S. Arnott', Galanthus nivalis 'Blewbery Tart', Galanthus plicatus 'Baxendale's Late'

Common Name

Snowdrops in three named cultivars. 'S. Arnott' was discovered by an 19th Scottish cleric, Sam Arnott. 'Blewbury Tart' was discovered in Blewbury, Oxfordshire, England. 'Baxendale's Late' was also discovered in England; Mr. Baxendale's son Martin has stated that his father didn't think the cultivar was worth growing, and neither does he. Too late: I've got it now.

Family

Amaryllidaceae, the Amaryllis family. 

What kind of plant is it?

Hardy perennial bulb.

Hardiness

Zones 3 - 8.

Habit

Tightly clumping, with narrow upright strap-like foliage, above which project the narrow flowering stalks, known as scapes, each topped by a single pendulous blossom.

Rate of Growth

Fast when happy. 

Size in ten years

Clumps are reported to flower best when they are lifted and divided every two or three years. Mature heights depend on culture and cultivar, and range from a few inches to nine or higher.

Texture

The foliage is dense and grassy, above which dance the pendulous flowers.

Grown for

their flowers. Galanthus flowers are eccentric, with specific terminology to handle each little detail. There are no petals per se; the flower is composed of six tepals, which appear petal-like but can't be differentiated as being a petal or a sepal. Hence, a "tepal." The outer three tepals are larger and convex, a snow white that is usually but not always lacking green markings at the tips, forming a loose cup around the inner three, which are always marked at the tips by varying amounts and patterns of green or, rarely, yellow. All six tepals arise from a round receptacle that is the same color as the green or yellow of the markings on the inner three tepals.

 

The scapes of 'S. Arnott' are particularly tall; its inner tepals have a modest curved green edge bordered by white. The inner tepals of 'Baxendale's Late' are similar, but the flowers emerge later in the Galanthus bloom season. The inner tepals of 'Blewbury Tart' are doubled and doubled again, forming a rosette; they are almost entirely green.

 

their early season of bloom. Galanthus often begin the new year's cycle of flowering.

 

their toughness. Galanthus are undeterred by cold and snow; they are also not bothered by foliage- or flower-eating browsers or bulb-eating diggers. 

 

their ever-expanding profusion of cultivars, creating a gratifyingly ever-fresh and enlarging world of minutiae to savor, as well as to use to one-up other Galanthus-growing friends, who are known, affectionately, as galanthophiles. See "Variants," below.

Flowering season

Winter to early Spring. In mild climates, the show can begin in January; in more and more severe ones, not until March. Here in southern Rhode Island, the season is late February into March.

Color combinations

Snowdrop foliage is noticeably blue compared to the bright green of that of, say, scillas or crocuses. With the rarest exceptions of the few (and bracingly expensive) cultivars that have a yellow receptacle and yellow markings on the tepals, the coloring of the flowers is pure white—snow white, indeed—and green. Steel blue, snow white, mid-green: Galanthus offers only a narrow, and chilly, palette of colors to harmonize with the surroundings.

 

Further, because there are no forms with showy variegated foliage, the only portion of the entire plant where two colors mingle creatively is the smaller inner rank of tepals, with their intricate interplay of green and white.

 

Plants with others colors can be sited nearby to clumps of snowdrops, but with so little detail and subtlety in the coloring of Galanthus itself, those juxtapositions are likely to read as contrasts or even clashes, not combinations. Just because white and mid-green don't clash with anything doesn't mean that they actively partner with everything. The blue tones of the foliage are more helpful than the flowers in suggesting pairings with pink, burgundy, rose, and indigo; if you're feeling patriotic, red is another possibility. Orange and apricot are still other choices.

 

To my eye, unless you're planting the few yellow-marked forms of Galanthus, it's a mistake to partner with deep yellow. The color doesn't relate to steel blue, and is the epitome of early-Spring brashness as well. Think about the zillions of yellow dafs that greet Spring, let alone the square miles of forsythia. Snowdrops would be lost anywhere near such massings of the obvious.

 

For suggestions, see "Plant partners," below.

Plant

partners

Although the flowers and foliage of Galanthus can combine with almost any color other than school-bus yellow, the challenge is choosing plants who are flaunting their color at the same time Galanthus is in flower—and who, if they are not, themselves, providing the dappled Summer shade Galanthus requires, are comfortable in the shade of the larger trees that will.

 

The highest hurdle is shade, not color. Many of the brightest stars of gardens that can peak in cold weather require full sun. For example, all the forms of willows and Siberian dogwoods with the brightest Winter bark thrive only when they receive full sun in Spring and Summer. Winter-flowering heathers (forms of Erica carnea and Erica x darleyensis) are also failures if grown in dappled shade.

 

It's possible to site Galanthus at the north or east side of such willows and Siberian dogwoods, whose rapidly-growing new stems will shade the snowdrop colonies by early July. If you had Winter-flowering forms of heather to the south and west of the shrubs, you could, theoretically, give each plant the exposure it needs.

 

You're more likely to have the opportunity to plant Galanthus where it and its plant partners all receive the same dappled shade from overhead trees. Shade-tolerant snowdrop partners that are likely to bring mid- to late-Winter colors to the garden that converse adeptly with the bulb's narrow blue-and-green palette include Helleborus foetidus and, if you're lucky and they flower at the same time, the countless hybrids of Helleborus orientalis. There are also shade-tolerant variegated broadleaves such as Aucuba japonica. Winter-blooming shrubs with flowers that are white include Lonicera x purpusii 'Winter Beauty' and, for those in Zone 7, white forms of Camellia japonica. Would the flowers of Abeliophyllum distichum be out at the same time as those of Galanthus?  Definitely an experiment worth conducting.

 

Partners that are so compact that they can be planted at the front of Galanthus clumps include purple-leaved forms of Ajuga. I'm going to try to front one or two of my clumps-to-be of Galanthus with Ajuga pyramidalis 'Metallica Crispa Purpurea', whose shiny prostrate foliage looks like krinkled burgundy aluminum foil. It needs sun for best coloring, but accepts afternoon shade; Galanthus are likely to thrive with morning sun and afternoon shade, too.

 

I'd normally advise to avoid partners with grassy foliage, but the chance to pair Galanthus with any number of Crocus forms with blue or indigo flowers is very tempting.

 

The growth cycle of Galanthus is completed before the trees that might be providing its shade have woken up in Spring, so it might be possible to establish snowdrops underneath almost any shade-tree species, regardless of how dense the tree's shade is in the Summer, or how thoroughly its feeder roots have colonized the same soil as that the clumps of Galanthus are growing in. In reality, however, unless your Summer climate is cool and rainy, the soil under some shade trees is likely to be much drier in Summer than others, and Galanthus prefer soil that retains some moisture even in Summer. Oak trees are the best choice for shade-providing partners, in that their roots behave as if they are deep and sparse; maple trees are the worst, in that their roots behave as if they are shallow and dense. Galanthus clumps are easy to relocate, so there's no harm in being adventurous in trying snowdrops out beneath various shade trees.    

Where to use it in your garden

Any plant of such short stature, minute but oh-so-satisfying floral details, and commitment to flowering when the weather is guaranteed still to be chilly at best, icy and sloppy at worst, demands to be sited where close-at-hand viewing is practical: Near pathways and doorways, where there's at least the hope of walking out from indoor shelter without leaving mucky footprints in the grass.

 

Mass plantings—the sweeps of thousands of snowdrops coursing amid groves of deciduous trees—are stunning, and worthy of horto-tourism from anywhere to anywhere. But unless you're gardening on such a great-estate level, concentrate on using Galanthus as details, in intimate surroundings that make clear that, yes, it's perfectly OK—and even a sign of respect—to kneel down and study the little guys from only inches away. This is particularly the case if you've gone to the trouble and expense of establishing named cultivars, whose main point is the opportunity they offer for appreciation of more-and-more subtle differences, one form to the other. Don't plant any such fancy forms more than a foot or two from a pathway. The last thing you'd want in a season that is guaranteed to be muddy, and where the soil in a bed will compact cruelly if stepped or kneeled upon, is for admirers to have to enter into a bed itself to get the best view of your prized Galanthus clumps.

 

Be sure, as well, that such front-of-the-bed locations don't mean that the colonies are subjected to baking sun in the Summer. Either choose pathways whose flanking beds are broadly canopied by deciduous shade trees (see "Plant partners, above), or, if shaded only by the shrubs within the bed itself, have those shade-providing partners be planted to the south of the Galanthus clumps. In other words, site Galanthus on the north side of paths that might be sunny in the Summer, not the south.

Culture

Part shade, ideally beneath deciduous shrubs or trees. Their bare branches permit full sun (such as it is) in Winter and Spring, and expanding warm-weather foliage provides dappled shade Summer into Fall, which helps keep the soil cooler than it would be if exposed to full sun. Humus-rich, moist, well-drained soil. 

How to handle it:  The Basics

Plant two to three inches deep, mixing some bone meal into the soil as you go. Dormant bulbs from many mail order and retail sources usually establish; they are available in late Summer into Fall. Specialist suppliers (see the two in "Variants," below) recommend that bulbs be planted (or divided or transplanted) when "in the green," meaning when their leaves are still out in early Spring. April is the prime month for handling in-the-green Galanthus.

 

Self-seeding clumps can bloom year after year, but purists (who, by definition, include anyone who is shelling out the big bucks to buy fancy in-the-green cultivars) recommend that clumps be lifted every two or three years, separated into individual bulbs, and replanted. This is a great opportunity to expand the area of a given planting, or start additional drifts. Plant individual bulbs two or three inches apart if you're up for every-other-year divisions. If not, plant individual bulbs four or five inches apart.  

How to handle it: Another option—or two?

Because all forms of Galanthus self-seed (but, usually, only the species come true from seed), keep the location and layout of a multi-clump colony of each single cultivar in your memory (and labelled in the garden). Review the colony when it's in flower to identify self-seeded volunteers that you may want to remove. This is often the same time you'll be lifting the desired clumps to divide and reset them.

 

As long as the weather is cool and wet, you can dig up a clump at any stage of its cycle of leaves and flowers; in this sense, Galanthus are the hostas of bulbs. If the wind is at your sails and you're itching to rework a drift of Galanthus even though it is in full flower—which urge might strike you if your rare and expensive named cultivar now finds itself in the midst of scores of bland self-seeded volunteers—go ahead.

Quirks or special cases

No doubt, intentional Galanthus breeding happens, but it is striking how the norm is for cultivars to arise on their own, to be spotted by eager galanthophiles reviewing their collections when in flower. (Galanthus cultivars are, overwhelmingly, distinguished by their floral details; while there are differences in foliage, they are secondary.) Each of my three (to date) named cultivars was just such a random and spontaneous appearance, and a chance discovery by an alert Galanthus-loving gardener. One of the excitements of enjoying your Galanthus display at the height of its flowering is the possibility that you to will discover a new form whose distinctive desirability you might be able to confirm (via the monograph in "Variants," below), and whose introduction to the world of Galanthus you might be able to bring about. This process has happened hundreds of times already; why shouldn't the next cultivar be discovered by you?

Downsides

None. Provided they're sited in their preferred soil and exposure, Galanthus are tolerant and enduring.

Variants

There are currently twenty recognized species of Galanthus, and hundreds of cultivars—more than 500 and counting—among them. Forms of Galanthus nivalis and G. elwesii are planted, probably, in the millions annually. Others are so rare that a few dozen bulbs—or even a few individual bulbs—might change hands a year.

 

The details that differentiate one form of Galanthus from another can seem, to the uninitiated, implausibly and even comically minute. To galanthophiles, the slightest new detail is engaging and desirable, often for being slight. Given that the foliage is always grassy and more-or-less blue-green, and the flowers are always white and pendulous, it can be difficult for the novice even to perceive differences without some mentoring. Once you fall down the rabbit hole, however, the tiny differences are all too charming and important: The height of the stalk that supports the flowers. The patch of green, bigger or smaller, on this or that tepal. The presence of additional tepals, and in what configuration. The specific time of peak display within the overall Winter season. The ease of establishment, quickness to reproduce, tolerance of or addiction to soils of higher-than-usual pH.

 

These and other factors can dictate that fair market value for a single bulb can exceed 50 and even 100 dollars. To my knowledge, the current record for a single bulb is 725 pounds—just over a 1,000 dollars—for a yellow-marked cultivar of Galanthus woronowii.

 

For my money, the rare cultivars with yellow markings instead of green are truly worth it. Someday, someday, thriving clumps of G. plicatus 'Wendy's Gold' will be mine. Also on my wishlist is G. woronowii—just the species, please—whose foliage is startling (for a Galanthus, remember) in its width. 

 

Survey a few other choice cultivars here. And don't waste a minute in getting on the mailing list for The Temple Nursery, POB 131, Trumansburg, NY 14886. No website! Send a check for $3 for the catalogue, exclusively of Galanthus to be sold in the green. All correspondence I've received from the proprieter, Mr. Hitch Lyman, is in an authoritatively-calligraphic script; I have the impression that he writes with an actual fountain pen.

 

If you do succumb to temptation and buy a few of the cultivars the sources above offer, make your peace with the reality that you will soon buy more of them, as well as "the" snowdrop monograph.

Availability

On-line and, where the species is soundly hardy, sometimes even at retailers.

Propagation

By division; self-seeding plants of cultivars normally do not come true.

Native habitat

Galathus species are native, variously, to continental Europe from Spain through Greece, as well as the Near East from Turkey to Israel, and North into southern Russia and farther east, into the Caucasian republics. 

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