Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis)

Snowdrop flowers
David Beaulieu

As the name suggests, snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) are one of the first of all spring flowers to bloom; depending on region, they appear in February and March, often while snow still blankets the ground. This low-growing plant tolerates partial shade to full sun, a variety of soil types, and requires almost no maintenance. It is toxic to animals and humans, but where this is not a concern, it offers the benefit of being virtually immune to feeding by deer and other wildlife.

Description

Common snowdrops are tiny plants (3 to 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, three outer petals arch out over three inner petals. The leaves are shaped like narrow blades, growing about 4 inches long. Snowdrops are perennial plants that 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.

Botanical Information

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 belong to the amaryllis family. A native plant to Europe and southwest Asia, snowdrops are winter hardy in USDA hardiness zones 3 to 7. In the southern zones, the bulbs may lose vigor over time; this is plant best suited to cooler climates.

Plants of a similar appearance do exist, both inside and outside 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 USDA plant hardiness zones 4 to 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 flower petals the Leucojum genus are the same length. And how do you tell summer snowflake apart from spring snowflake? Despite the former's common name, it does not bloom in summer, but rather in mid-spring. By contrast, spring snowflake blooms earlier, 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 (or occasionally two) on a flowering stem of spring snowflake. In Latin, vernum and aestivum mean "spring" and "summer," respectively.

Landscape Uses

Snowdrops are usually planted in drifts of grouped bulbs, and they will gradually spread over time. They are often mixed with other spring-blooming bulbs. You can plant snowdrop bulbs under deciduous trees without worrying that your snowdrops will not receive sufficient sunlight since they bloom and begin storing nutrient well before the leaves come out on trees. This fact gives you a lot of flexibility. As petite plants that crave good drainage, snowdrops are also well suited for rock gardens, where they will provide some early-season interest. And they are a natural choice for woodland gardens and for moon gardens, where the white flowers brighten shady areas and the evening garden.

Growing Tips

Snowdrops take full sun to partial shade. Grow them in 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.

Plant the bulbs 2 to 3 inches deep in the ground, in groups of up to 25 bulbs. Recommended planting time is in the fall. These are small plants that will not have much impact individually, so their bulbs should be planted closely together in groups to create a showy spring display. The typical use 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.

Snowdrops readily multiply, and they can be propagated simply by lifting, dividing, and replanting the bulbs in the fall.

Problems

Snowdrops have no serious disease or pest problems. However, remember that 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 skin irritation from handling them without protection.

Companion Species

Other early-short plants that flower early include:

  • Glory-of-the-snow bulbs (Chionodoxa)
  • Crocus bulbs 
  • Winter aconite bulbs (Eranthis hyemalis)
  • Adonis flowers (Adonis amurensis 'Fukujukai')

Winter aconite and Adonis both have yellow flowers. The flowers on glory-of-the-snow 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 in a woodland or rock garden setting.