Common snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) are bulbous perennials that are native to Europe and southwestern Asia. Common belief is that the Romans brought them to England and the early settlers brought them to the eastern U.S. and Canada.
Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus (1707 – 1778) first described Galanthus nivalis in his “Species Plantarum” in 1753. This plant received the specific epithet nivalis, which means ‘snowy’ and Galanthus translated is ‘with milk-white flowers.’
Snowdrops: Endangered Species?
The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists this perennial as ‘Vulnerable,’ ‘Near Threatened,’ or ‘Critically Endangered’ (but only those that occur in natural habitats) in several European countries. The suspicion is that climate change and the over-collecting of snowdrop bulbs for the supply of garden centers have definitely made an impact.
In the eastern U.S. and in Canada, there are no worries of losing these magnificent flowers because many of these species continue to ‘escape’ gardens and naturalize. Common snowdrops are a true harbinger of spring that typically bloom from late February to early April, often poking their heads up through snow.
The common name refers to the slight resemblance of the flowers to ‘drops’ of snow.
The Appearance of the Common Snowdrop
Enclosed by a papery sheath in the early stages of development, the solitary white flowers of common snowdrops hang down. Six white perianth segments (petals and sepals which are similar in appearance) make up each flower.
The outer three segments typically measure 14 to 17 millimeters in length, and the inner three measure half that and have a green notch in the tip which is an inverted V or U-shape.
The narrow leaves are bluish-green in colour and the hardened and narrow leaf-tips are able to break through frozen ground. The Common snowdrop has two leaves that face one another, like two hands praying.
Although the typical height for these early bloomers is 4″ to 6”, there are some cultivated varieties that can reach up to 10” tall.
Propagation of Snowdrops
The propagation of common snowdrops is a relatively simple job and best done when the plant is in full growth or immediately after the leaves have died.
While the soil is still moist, lift the parent plant using a strong hand trowel. Very carefully tease the clump apart removing bulbs either as individuals or as smaller clumps. Be sure not to cause any damage.
Plant your new bulbs into fertile soil preferably in partial shade. Choose a well-drained site, but not one that dries out in summer. Be sure to place the bulbs at the same depth as before.
Best Ground for Snowdrops
Common snowdrops do best in moisture retentive, humus-rich, soil similar to that found in woodlands so it is advisable to add a good quantity of rich compost to the soil first. Once planted, give your plants a good watering in to help the roots bind with the surrounding soil.
A word of caution: this plant irritates the skin of some gardeners so be sure to wear protective gloves when handling your snowdrop bulbs or leaves.
Bees can pollinate common snowdrops, yet this rarely occurs due to the lack of bee activity so early in the year. This plant spreads mainly by division of the bulbs, and seed production is extremely poor; however, ants can spread some seeds.
A Harbinger of Spring
It’s hard not to love these wonderful flowers that add colour to our gardens when little else is awake. Snowdrops can adorn your rock gardens, borders or anywhere else you want to see some life so early in the growing season.