Taxonomical and Botanical Facts About Snowdrop Flowers
Plant taxonomy classifies common snowdrops as Galanthus nivalis. The genus name refers to the white color of the flowers (gala is Greek for "milk," while anthos is Greek for "flower"), and nivalis is Latin for "snow-like." They are classified as spring bulb plants and reside in the amaryllis family.
Characteristics of Snowdrops
Common snowdrops (picture) are tiny plants (3-6 inches tall) that produce one small (1 inch or less), white flower, which hangs down off its stalk like a "drop" prior to opening. When the bloom opens, the eye beholds three outer petals arching out over three inner petals. The leaves are shaped like narrow blades, which grow about 4 inches long. Snowdrops are perennial plants that may multiply and spread over time; in fact, they will frequently naturalize. Take advantage of the fact that the bulbs multiply to divide them when you wish to propagate them.
Plants of a similar appearance do exist, both within and without the Galanthus genus; for example:
- G. elwesii is called the "giant snowdrop" and grows to be twice as tall as G. nivalis.
- Leucojum vernum, a plant of about the same size as the giant snowdrop (1 foot tall), is called the "spring snowflake."
- Leucojum aestivum bears the common name of "summer snowflake." It is of a similar size to L. vernum, and both are suitable for growing in zones 4-8.
So how are the snowflakes (Leucojum) different from the snowdrops (Galanthus)? Whereas the three outer petals of the latter are larger than the three inner petals, all six of the petals on the flowers of the Leucojum genus are the same length. And how do you tell summer snowflake apart from spring snowflake? Well, despite the former's common name, it does not bloom in summer, but rather in mid-spring. By contrast spring snowflake blooms earlier (as you would expect): in early spring. Moreover, a flowering stem of summer snowflake is likely to bear more flowers: up to six, whereas you will usually find just one bloom on a flowering stem of spring snowflake (occasionally two, but not more). In Latin, vernum and aestivum mean "spring" and "summer," respectively.
Sun and Soil Requirements, Planting Zones, Native Origin
Snowdrops take full sun to partial shade (but see below under Uses). Grow them in a well-drained soil that has plenty of humus. This plant does not require particularly moist soil in the North; in the South, however, it will need more water.
Tips on Plant Care, Warning About Toxicity
Snowdrops are deer-resistant bulb plants. Plant the bulbs 2-3 inches deep in the ground. Recommended planting time is in the fall (the precise autumn month in which you plant them will depend on where you live). These are small plants that will not have much of an impact individually, so their bulbs must be planted closely together (2-3 inches apart) to create a showy spring display. The idea is to have a blanket of snowdrops to cover an area, replacing winter's blanket of snow. Do not remove the plant's foliage until it has turned yellow, so that your snowdrops have a chance to store nutrients for next year.
These are poisonous plants for humans, dogs and cats alike. Consequently, do not allow pets or children to eat them. Nor should you work with the plants without wearing garden gloves (for example, when picking up the bulbs to plant them); some people can develop a skin irritation from handling them without protection.
Uses for Snowdrops in Landscape Design
You can plant snowdrop bulbs under deciduous trees without worrying that your snowdrops will not receive sufficient sunlight, since they bloom and begin storing nutrients before the leaves come out on trees. This fact gives you a lot flexibility. As petite plants that crave good drainage, snowdrops are also well suited for rock gardens, where they will provide some early-season interest. Moreover, they are a natural choice for woodland gardens and for moon gardens.
Outstanding Feature of Snowdrops
As the "snow" in their name suggests, snowdrops are among the earliest bloomers in the yard. Depending on your region, they will bloom in February or March. Snowdrops may not even wait for the snow to melt before emerging from their winter sleep, instead pushing right up through the snow -- a delightful sight for the winter-weary.
Other short plants that flower early include:
Winter aconite and Adonis both have yellow flowers. Glory-of-the-snow has flowers that can be light pink, blue, lavender or white. Crocus also blooms in various colors, including purple. All four serve readily as companion plants for snowdrops.