Spring's snowy white drifts

Peter aka anemoneproject/Flickr

Peter aka anemoneproject/Flickr

There aren’t too many flowers that bloom before winter loosens its grip, but we treasure the few, brave exceptions – snowdrops being the most familiar and beloved.    

It’s not too soon to scan the soggy ground for these cheerful blossoms, ideally found in drifts under still-leafless trees. In June, you might not give snowdrops a second glance but now in a barren landscape, they can strike plant-hungry eyes as a vision of loveliness.

Examine one closely and you’ll see how cunningly they are made. Each of the three inner petals is stippled with a border of green, while the three longer, outer petals flare from the base like a stiff, old-fashioned petticoat.

You might think the snowdrop got its English common name because in its translucent pallor, it resembles a dollop of frosty snow. Not so — the name actually refers to pearly-white, pendant earrings popular among Dutch and Italian women of the 15th and 16th centuries. Other of the flower’s names include belle of the snow, winter bell and snow violet, so there is cold, white theme here.

While we in the United States think of snowdrops as trifling, a blip on the bleak screen of late winter, it’s good to hear from someone in the hub of all things galanthus, the British Isles.

Naomi Slade, author of “The Plant Lover’s Guide to Snowdrops” (Timber Press, 2015), grew up in Wales. She is well acquainted with the galanthophiles that scour the hills and woodlands in the grip of their obsession during snowdrop season. Picture this:

“These folks can be found on their hands and knees searching for rarities,” Slade reports. “Nose to the ground, they peer under the skirts of the tiny flowers for unusual markings and variations on the shade of green.”

I confess that I only was aware there were single snowdrops and those with a frilly “double” inner cup. Who knew that there are now 20 identified species and thousands of named varieties? While many of the differences are quite subtle, having to do with the pattern of green markings on the petals, the gallery of 60-odd varieties included in the book is quite eye-opening.

You know that the Brits are seriously into this simple flower when you read that John Grimshaw, director of the Yorkshire Arboretum, still waxes nostalgic over the snowdrop conference convened by the Royal Horticultural Society – in 1891. Well, alrighty.

Slade also includes a listing of the best public gardens to view snowdrop plantings in Great Britain, Europe and the United States. Her vote for the best place in America? Winterthur, the former Henry Francis de Pont estate near Wilmington, Delaware.  Could be worth a road trip.

Snowdrops are among those bulbs that need a period of cold to trigger bloom, and are commonly planted in fall along with daffodils, tulips and crocuses. Bulbs are cheap – 50 cents apiece for the commoner kinds. Just beware of dried out bulbs that may never sprout.

Some snowdrop fans say it is more reliable to plant “in the green,” that is, using plants that have bloomed but still retain their foliage. This is possible if you know someone who has snowdrops to spare but living plants are not generally sold commercially.    

In either case, give snowdrops a spot where they get winter sun and summer shade. Under deciduous trees is preferred, and if your plants are happy, they will gradually spread to make a carpet of charming little flowers as dense as snowdrifts. Don’t make regimented groupings, but rather scatter snowdrops in irregular clumps with a few outliers, imitating the way they naturally grow.

Having some little snowdrops around gives you hope in the tail end of winter. If the snowdrops are blooming, spring is surely on the way.


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