Last updated on October 25th, 2023 at 01:09 pm
Snowdrops (Galanthus) inaudibly herald the arrival of spring. They are the first flowers of the year: as soon as the frost moves out of the ground, snowdrops poke their delicate flower heads through the snow cover – sometimes as early as January, sometimes as late as April. Their numerous species and varieties have triggered a veritable collecting frenzy among enthusiasts. No wonder!
In spring, snowdrops already spread a spring mood as soon as the delicate white flowers peek through the snow. Depending on the weather, the early bloomers begin to bloom already in winter from January or February. Although they seem rather delicate at first glance, the early bloomers, which belong to the Amaryllis family (Amaryllidaceae), are very robust and occur in a very large variety of species in our gardens.
There are 18 different species of snowdrops and 500 varieties. Often it is only on closer inspection that one realizes how the quite similar varieties of the messengers of spring differ from each other. There are simple flowers and strongly double, fragrant, pure white, yellow-marked and those with delicate green markings or dark green dotted specimens.
Popular and rare snowdrops
The best known species in this country is the lesser snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis). It grows 10 to 15 centimeters tall. The inner petals of Galanthus nivalis are marked with a green crescent-shaped spot at the tip. Taller grows the Turkish snowdrop (Galanthus elwesii), which is very widespread in our country. It reaches a height of growth of 15 to 20 centimeters and also the flowers and leaves become much larger than in the small snowdrop. The petals have a broad, dark green stripe. This species does well in sunny places, but does not form secondary bulbs and therefore should be planted in groups. Queen Olga snowdrop (Galanthus reginae-olgae) shows a special feature: this species blooms in autumn.
Planting snowdrops: here’s how.
To plant the bulbs, autumn is recommended, ideally September and October. Place the bulbs of snowdrops about 6 to 7 centimeters deep into the ground. You should keep a distance of 10 to 15 centimeters. The spring messengers feel particularly at home in loose, humus-rich soil. There, the plants form large stands over time. While the early-flowering species in the garden prefer a place in the sun, plants such as the native Galanthus nivalis, which have their flowering season in late spring, prefer to be planted in a semi-shaded location. Snowdrops also like to take a place among perennials and under shrubs that let winter sun through. If it gets too cold for the little flowers, they simply close their blossoms and lay the stems close to the ground to bloom again as soon as temperatures permit.
Those who wish to plant ready-made snowdrops in the garden should do so while they are in bloom in the spring or afterward in the summer. Planting the dormant bulbs in pots first in the fall is not advisable, because the snowdrops can develop better in the garden in the right location.
Properly care for snowdrops
Care for snowdrops is very simple: just leave the bulb flowers alone. If you fertilize the snowdrop, then few or no flowers will form, because nutrient-rich substrate mainly sprouts green leaves.
You should also not cut off wilted foliage and flowers of Galanthus, but pluck them off by hand only when they have rotted. If your snowdrop is blooming on the lawn, wait until the flowers and leaves are yellow before mowing. In the summer, the soil should not dry out completely.
Snowdrops retreat back to the bulb after flowering. During this period, the bulb flowers are sensitive to tillage, so you should not start mowing and hoeing until May. By then, the snowdrops’ blooming season is over. You should also take this into account when choosing a location in the garden for the plants.
Danger for snowdrops: pests and diseases
Even though galanthus is one of the hardy early bloomers, daffodil flies and slugs can cause them problems. The daffodil fly lays its eggs at the base of the plant, so the hatched maggots eat their way through the bulb flower from the inside to pupate there. So, to control the fly, you should cover the plants with a light- and air-permeable fabric immediately after flowering to prevent the pests from spreading. To avoid slug infestation, you should fight them in time and, in the best case, rake the beds before the first shoots of early bloomers are visible in January or February.
In addition, snowdrops are particularly susceptible to gray mold infestation. The shoot tips of the plants are covered with a white or gray fuzz when they are infested with gray mold, and the bulb can also rot from the fungus. To prevent gray mold from spreading in your bed, immediately remove the diseased parts of the plant and cut off the mold-infested areas or dig up the plant completely.
To propagate you do not need to do much, because snowdrops usually spread by themselves. For this purpose, they form so-called breeding bulbs. Over the years, this creates an impressive sea of flowers in the spring. Ants are important helpers in propagation. After flowering, the flower stalk lowers, the ovary bursts open, and the ants make themselves at home with the seeds. The little animals take the seeds to their burrow, where they begin to germinate.
If you want to propagate snowdrops in a targeted manner, you can dig up the clumps after flowering (but before the leaves wither), divide them into fist-sized pieces like perennials with a spade, and replant them in the ground. Larger stands look especially nice when you add some color with other early bloomers like crocuses, winterling or cyclamen.
Caution: Snowdrops are poisonous
As beautiful as they are: Snowdrops are poisonous. The plant parts contain amaryllidaceous alkaloids that are toxic to humans and animals. When planting, propagating or caring for them, you should therefore wear gloves and avoid touching your face. Especially the bulbs contain a high amount of the alkaloids.
The toxins can cause severe coughing, as well as abdominal pain, vomiting and diarrhea. All other parts of the plant also emit toxins. Especially on pets and children the poisonous plants have nasty effects. If consumed, you should immediately contact the doctor.
How did the snowdrop come to us?
The snowdrop originally comes from the Caucasus and the Balkans. It was brought to Central Europe in the 16th century. In the following centuries it became wild in our country. Even today, larger snowdrop stands can be found near former monasteries, which may indicate a religious significance in earlier times. In nature, however, the snowdrop is rarely found: Mainly in deciduous and mixed forests with a calcareous loam and clay soil.
Some snowdrops are worth a fortune!
However, in order to preserve the beauty of snowdrops and to grow many fascinating varieties, a true passion for collecting has broken out among hobby gardeners, which has already been given its own name in the gardening scene: “Galanthophilia”. Numerous private growers in Europe and neighboring countries exchange bulbs of rare varieties or their own creations at snowdrop markets or perennial markets and pass on tips. Rare varieties sometimes cost a small fortune.