As the name suggests, snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) are one of the first spring flowers to bloom. This cheerful bulb plant requires almost no maintenance or fuss, as it can be grown in a variety of spots in the yard and isn't bothered by pests or diseases. Snowdrops are related to the amaryllis bulbs (Hippeastrum) that Northerners force into flower in winter (grow as houseplants) and are also related to daffodils (Narcissus).
Depending on the region where you live, snowdrops appear in February or March, often while snow still blankets the ground. Thus the botanical name, Galanthus nivalis: The genus name refers to the white flowers (gala is Greek for "milk," anthos is Greek for "flower"), and nivalis is Latin for "snow-covered." Snowdrops are tiny plants (3 to 6 inches tall) that produce one small (1 inch or less), white, bell-shaped flower, which hangs off the end of a green, leafless stalk like a "drop" prior to opening. When the bloom opens, three outer petals arch out over three inner petals. The flower "nods its head" down to the ground. The grayish-green leaves are shaped like narrow blades, growing about 4 inches long.
Snowdrops are toxic to animals and humans; where this is a concern (as when you have pets or children), consider other choices that are not toxic. But where this is not a concern, it is a benefit: It means snowdrops are virtually immune from being eaten by pests. Learn how to grow the snowdrop, a plan, like witch hazel (Hamamelis), with early blooms sure to lift your spirits on a cold, late winter's day.
|Common Names||Snowdrops, common snowdrop. The more poetic "fair maids of February" and "Candlemas bells" both refer to the plant's emergence in February in some zones.|
|Botanical Name||Galanthus nivalis|
|Plant Type||Perennial bulb (hardy in the North)|
|Mature Size||3 to 6 inches tall|
|Sun Exposure||Full sun to partial shade|
|Soil Type||Loamy, sandy, humusy, well-drained|
|Soil pH||Acidic, neutral, alkaline|
|Bloom Time||Early spring|
|Hardiness Zones||3 to 7, USA|
|Native Areas||Western Asia and Eastern Europe|
|Toxicity||Toxic to people, pets|
Plant snowdrop bulbs 3 inches deep in soil that you have thoroughly loosened ahead of time. The thin end of the bulb should be facing up. Add a bulb fertilizer when you plant to get the snowdrops off to an optimal start. Planting time ranges from early fall to late fall depending on where you live. Do not buy the bulbs too far ahead of time: They can dry out and lose viability if they are left lying around too long. Space the bulbs 3 to 4 inches apart.
After the plants come up and flower in spring, allow the foliage to yellow or brown before removing it (or just let it decompose, returning nutrients to the soil). This allows the plant to store the maximum amount of nutrients in its bulb, which will keep it healthy and ensure good flowering for next year. If left alone, the foliage disappears by late spring or summer as the bulbs go dormant. To remind yourself that the snowdrop bulbs remain underground in this space (so that you do not accidentally disturb them), mark them with a plant label.
As small plants that need good drainage, snowdrops are well suited for rock gardens, where they will provide some early-season interest. They are also a natural choice for woodland gardens and for moon gardens, where the white flowers brighten the evening garden.
Snowdrops can be mixed with other plants that flower early in spring (especially other bulbs), several of which make excellent companion plants for snowdrops in a woodland or rock garden setting:
- Glory-of-the-snow bulbs (Chionodoxa): Light pink, blue, lavender, or white flowers; zones 4 to 9
- Crocus bulbs (Crocus spp.): Purple, lavender, orange, yellow, blue, white, and cream flowers; zones 3 to 8 (typically)
- Winter aconite bulbs (Eranthis hyemalis): Bright yellow flowers; zones 3 to 7
- Adonis flowers (Adonis amurensis 'Fukujukai'): Yellow flowers; zones 3 to 7; not a bulb but a perennial
Snowdrops do need sunlight and enjoy full sun (average of 6 or more hours of direct sunlight each day). But because they bloom so early in the spring, providing snowdrops with sufficient sunlight generally is not a problem: They flower before trees such as maple (Acer spp.) and oak (Quercus spp.) have a chance to leaf out and cast shade. One of the benefits of growing snowdrops is that you can plant them in spaces under large, deciduous trees (partially-shaded spaces that would otherwise go unused) where most other plants would struggle to grow well.
Grow snowdrops in a loose, well-drained soil that has plenty of humus. Like most bulbs they will ot thrive in heavy clay.
This plant does not require particularly moist soil in cooler climates; in warmer climates, however, it will need more water.
Temperature and Humidity
Snowdrops do not like high heat and humidity. This is why they are generally not grown south of zone 7. At the southern end of their range, the bulbs may lose vigor over time. They are better-suited to the North, where they are cold-hardy as far up as zone 3.
A bulb fertilizer can be added at planting time to help boost your snowdrops to a good start. A late fall addition of compost should provide nutritional needs for next year's bloom.
Types of Snowdrops
Plants in the Leucojum genus look so similar to those in the Galanthus genus that the two genera are often considered together. Here are examples of each. Some are hardy only to zone 4 (Galanthus nivalis being slightly hardier than the rest). All, except for Leucojum aestivum, bloom by early spring:
- Galanthus elwesii is called the "giant snowdrop" and grows to be twice as tall as Galanthus nivalis. It is hardy to zone 4.
- Galanthus nivalis 'Flore Pleno' has double flowers.
- Galanthus nivalis 'Viride Apic' has prominent green marking on its petals.
- Leucojum vernum, a plant of about the same size as the giant snowdrop (1 foot tall), is called the "spring snowflake." It blooms in early spring and is hardy to zone 4.
- Leucojum aestivum bears the common name of "summer snowflake." It is of a similar size to L. vernum. It blooms a little later than the rest (in mid-spring) and is hardy to zone 4.
Here is how snowflakes differ from snowdrops. Whereas the three outer petals of Galanthus are larger than the three inner petals, all six of the flower petals in the Leucojum genus are the same length. A flowering stem of summer snowflake is likely to bear more flowers—up to six—whereas you usually find just one bloom (or occasionally two) on a flowering stem of spring snowflake.
Don't prune snowdrops. Neither trim the foliage nor deadhead the spent flowers of snowdrops. The entire plant will "die back" (above ground) when it is ready to go dormant. This is one reason why snowdrops are so low-maintenance.
Snowdrops come up every year and may multiply and spread over time; in fact, they will frequently naturalize. Take advantage of this fact to lift and divide the bulbs when you wish to propagate snowdrops.
Growing Snowdrops from Seed
While you can, technically, grow snowdrops from seed, it isn't worth the bother and hardly anybody does it. Consumers almost always begin their snowdrop patch by buying the bulbs (readily available at home improvement centers in the fall). The bulbs are far too inexpensive to justify buying the seed, instead, and expending the time and energy it would require to start new plants from seed. Once you have a patch started, snowdrops, under the right conditions, will spread on their own by self-seeding. Ants help disseminate the seeds. Snowdrops also spread on their own via bulb offsets.
As long as you garden within the range of zones 3 to 7, you do not have to do anything special to overwinter snowdrops. They are cold-hardy and will survive entirely on their own.
Getting Snowdrops to Bloom
Unlike with some plants, such as Wisteria, which can be fussy bloomers, no additional steps are required to get snowdrops to bloom. Simply provide them with the recommended growing conditions.
Common Problems With Snowdrop Flowers
Snowdrops have no serious disease or pest problems. But there are a few things about them to remember when growing them, including:
These are toxic plants for humans, dogs, and cats alike. Avoid letting kids or pets come into contact with any parts of the plants, and definitely don't eat them.
Moles are carnivores and will not eat your bulbs. But while moles have no nefarious designs upon your bulbs, they can dislodge them in pursuit of insects, etc. underground.
How many snowdrops should you plant?
These are small plants that won't have much impact individually, so their bulbs should be planted closely together in groups of at least 25. Such a mass planting compensates for the small size of each individual plant.
Are snowdrops deer-resistant?
Yes. Their toxic nature generally keeps deer from eating them.
How fast do snowdrops grow?
After planting the bulbs in fall, you will have flowers on fully-mature plants the following spring.