Ornamental and edible gardening adventures.

For budding enthusiast or seasoned collector, snowdrop fervor signals spring

Over the past few years, the popularity of snowdrops (galanthus) has surged. Bubbling over from the United Kingdom, snowdrop aficionados (also called galanthophiles) have begun to pop up in the United States as well.

As spring advances, the delicate flowers begin to appear. Already in Scotland, the Scottish Snowdrop Festival is underway (through March 12) and The Telegraph recently shared 22 best places to see snowdrops in Britain.

As of 2014, there were more than 2,500 different cultivars of galanthus. The rapid rise of the demure bulb has even been compared to the 1630s Dutch tulip craze, where the bulbs sold for ridiculously high prices before the bubble popped. Not too long ago, TIME magazine hinted at "Galanthomania," and speculated snowdrops might be headed in the same direction, since individual bulbs of unique varieties were fetching as much as $2,150 in 2015 on eBay. (For more on elusive snowdrops, click here.)

"I think that snowdrops are popular due to the fact that some cultivars start to flower earlier than other spring bulbs," said Jane Rowlinson of Cornovium Snowdrops. The mail-order business sells more than 300 different varieties of snowdrops to the U.K., U.S. and the European Union.

"You can grow species and cultivars that start flowering from September right the way through to April.  I feel that it is a very positive flower that starts the beginning of a new gardening year, as well as giving the early bees an opportunity feed and heralding the closeness of spring," she said. "They also give people a good excuse to get out of the house in the winter months to enjoy a stroll in some of the most beautiful parts of our country [U.K.]."

"Snowdrops have become rabidly popular," said Rick Goodenough, moderator of Snowdrops in American Gardens on Facebook. "But, first and foremost, they are one of the few plants that bloom in the middle of winter. By blooming late winter for the most part, snowdrops impart a sense of hope that spring is not far off. Snowdrops are quite the thing in Europe and have gained significant interest over the last two or three decades. There are many nuanced differences in the little blooms and a few that are quite different from the rest. When one sees the first bold yellow snowdrop, it can tug at one’s interest fairly strongly."

A simple Google or Instagram search for snowdrops will quickly illustrate the tiny flowers' popularity in the U.K. "The U.S. fervor is growing yet still lagging, not for a lack of interest, but the lack of access to the enormous range of cultivars available in Europe," said Goodenough.

Galanthus 'S. Arnott' is a good variety for beginners to start with. Photo: Cornovium Snowdrops and used with permission.
Start your collection with 'tried and tested' cultivars
It's hard to only grow one species of galanthus. The pest-free plant usually grows between 4 to 6 inches in height, but some varieties can grow as tall as 12 inches.

"I think that being a collector of snowdrops is not just about owning the latest cultivar, its about being part of a group of like-minded enthusiasts who all seem to have a passion for nature, plants and sharing," explained Rowlinson. "I myself have been lucky enough to receive and give bulbs to old friends and created new friendships through this shared passion, which I think is the most important part of loving snowdrops."

Cornovium Snowdrops originated when Rowlinson's personal snowdrop collection began to take over her garden. "The snowdrops grew so well in my garden that I didn't know what I was going to do with them all.  So, I put a few on eBay in order to raise money to buy some new cultivars, and this went so well that my husband suggested that I set up a proper business." Rowlinson's business eventually outgrew its eBay platform and now has its own business website.

"We are also the only snowdrop grower to currently offer dormant bulbs to the United States in the summer months," she said. "This came about through meeting a fellow enthusiast from the U.S. on social media who has helped us to get the correct permits that we need in order to legally send the bulbs overseas."

For those serious about beginning their snowdrop collection, Rowlinson suggested that a new collector start out with the "tried and tested cultivars," such as 'Magnet', 'S. Arnott' and 'Ophelia'. "These are all very easy to grow and therefore tend to be less expensive than some of the other snowdrops, and is how I started my collection."

Click to enlarge.
The ideal location for snowdrops, according to Rowlinson, is in free-draining soil with plenty of light during the growing season. "I am lucky that I have very free-draining sandy soil, but I still add sand into my planting hole. This is to ensure good drainage around the base of the snowdrops, but also to heed as a warning sign when poking around the soil in the summer months: If I hit sand, I know that there are bulbs about!"

Rowlinson also buries a label with each snowdrop. "Label carefully each bulb you plant; because of the wildlife in our garden, I bury a label with each snowdrop and have one sticking up slightly in the soil so I know where they are. I also take plenty of photos so that I can see their location as well!  I don't think I know one grower of snowdrops who doesn't have a 'lost label' bulb in their garden."

As for location, Goodenough recommends planting snowdrops in large sweeps in fairly undisturbed deciduous woodland edges or in high canopy deciduous shade. "The species varieties of nivalis, elwesii and wornowii are quite readily available in bulk in the U.S., and if I were starting from scratch, I would get a few hundred of each species and plant them in a few areas of my garden and just see how each species performs over a couple of years." Keeping notes on the best-performing species in the garden will help in deciding which species to continue collecting, he said.

Of course, some species are more popular than others and the best sellers for Cornovium Snowdrops share some similar qualities. "Last year's best-selling snowdrop was Galanthus nivalis 'Viridapice,' a lovely, statuesque, easy to grow green-tipped cultivar," said Rowlinson. "The past couple of years has seen the virescent snowdrops such as Galanthus nivalis 'Green Tear' and Galanthus elwesii 'RosemaryBurnham' being highly coveted, as well the poculiform snowdrops, where the inner and outer petals are all of the same length, examples being Galanthus nivalis 'Henry's White Lady' and Galanthus plicatus 'E.A. Bowles'. It is still very early in the season to predict as to what will be the most desired snowdrops this year." 

One controversial snowdrop is the "spikeys" classification, according to Goodenough. "These are so different that a few traditionalists refuse to accept them into their collections," said Goodenough. "It is those kinds of differences that crop up that keep the collectors going for the next, new and different snowdrop."

Correlating with Rowlinson's stats, Goodenough agreed that snowdrops with green color on their outer segments have grown in popularity, especially since it was once a very rarely seen attribute, he said. "But over the last 10 years, the numbers of virescent snowdrops has increased substantially. Yellows, also once rare, have become quite the collectors' target. And when newer forms become available in green and white, there is always an interest in seeing the same form in a yellow."

Galanthus 'Magnet' is a good variety for beginners to start with. Photo: Cornovium Snowdrops and used with permission.
Search for (Wendy's) Gold leads to education effort
Goodenough has gardened for most of his life and has always been interested in growing the "esoteric, hard to find and often hard on the pocket-book varieties."

His interest in snowdrops began when a fellow talented gardener suggested Goodenough stop by to view some of the different species of snowdrops in bloom. "The one that stood out was his stand of “giant” (elwesii) snowdrops. I asked about how he got them and he had picked them up many years before on a garden center rack." When Goodenough tried to do the same, he didn't have much luck. Many of the bulbs were dried out and did not grow. He decided to try and find a source for fresh bulbs, and after much research, he found Galanthus ‘Wendy’s Gold.'

"The hook was set," he said. "In my search for Galanthus ‘Wendy’s Gold’, I quickly learned that there were virtually no purveyors of unique snowdrops in the U.S. and with many more searches, I found out about Jerry FritzHitch Lyman and Carolyn’s Shade Garden. It took some concerted effort and luck to happen onto all of this and yet, I found I was too late to order any bulbs and had to write for catalogs, etc. and wait for another year."

In his attempts to find distributors from the U.K. who could ship to the U.S., he also wanted others to learn about snowdrops. ("I eventually learned that many Galanthus species are being protected under International Code that was promulgated to stop the ivory trade," he explained.)

"At the time I was leading efforts for the American Hosta Society with their social media including Facebook and I looked for such a group with interests in snowdrops. I found the Snowdrops and Galanthophiles Page and totally enjoyed it, though most participants were clearly way more experienced than was I in the genus. So knowing many Americans were facing the same obstacles as I was, I figured it would be good to start a group that could serve as a primary resource for folks on this side of the pond, both those just getting started or with a growing and keen interest. I was hoping other U.S. suppliers might come to light and also to just start a group which could more readily share available bulbs amongst each other. So Snowdrops in American Gardens was started."

Membership has surged: as of press time, the group now includes 578 members, and as of January 2017, had grown by 135 percent in one year. Members regularly share photos of their snowdrop varieties and interesting information.

To learn more about growing snowdrops, check out The Plant Lover's Guide to Snowdrops by Naomi Slade.


Floral Friday: Feb. 10

It may be winter outside, but inside, the amaryllis is showing off its spectacular red blooms. It's actually such a deep, rich red that it was hard to photograph!

Meanwhile, outside, the snow has buried my hellebores. Here's what hellebore niger looked like before it was covered in more than a foot of snow. (I like how the petals turn a soft pink as the flower ages.)

What's blooming in your garden - or home - this week?

The Gardener's February Calendar ~ 2017

The to-do list for February is one of the shorter ones I have, mainly because I'm spending my time dreaming and staring out the windows and figuring out how I can make my garden the best it can be. This involves considering the succession of bloom in the garden, the best use of space, tucking in edibles along with my ornamentals and figuring out ways to conserve water. Mainly, when I'm caught gazing out the window, I'm mentally imagining how the garden would look its best on the limited time availability I have.

This year I am shifting my focus on ways I can make better use of my time in the garden, which is a theme I think many gardeners can relate to. I'm also super excited to be a part of this year's Garden Blogger's Fling, which will be taking place in Virginia and the Washington D.C. area. Many of the wonderful, talented gardeners I interact with on social media will also be attending the fling, and I'm not only excited to meet many of them in person, but to discover more great plant combinations, gardening techniques and overall plant knowledge!

Without further ado, here are the items I hope to accomplish this month:

Water sprouts are some of the branches that
can be trimmed off fruit trees in late February.
  • Force blooms - Go outside and trim branches of forsythia, witch hazel and pussy willows. Bring them inside and put them in a vase of water. Within a week they will bloom. Instant spirit lifter.
  • Fruit trees - The end of February is a good time to trim pear and apple trees. The general guideline is to wait until the coldest part of the winter has passed before trimming, but before the spring warmup kicks in. Make sure your pruning shears are sharp and clean before you go outside and tackle this project. Still nervous? Here's how I prune my pear tree.
  • Seed starting Organize all the seed packets according to planting date. Figure out what your estimated last frost date is. (This website will help.) Then count backward from that week. This is your growing season. So when a packet of seeds says to start them inside eight weeks before the last average frost, for example, count back eight weeks from your last frost date. If you haven't ordered all your seeds yet, now is the time to do so before they sell out. You can start seeds of pansies, snapdragons, geraniums, ageratum, nicotiana and petunias now.
  • Clean water - It's important to keep a source of water available for the birds since may natural sources of water freeze. Even the squirrels come over and drink from the heated birdbath at this time of year.
  • Birding - Just like last winter, I've spent a lot of time looking out my window at all the different birds that visit the feeders at this time of year. I want to continue to grow plants that will attract birds to my garden all year long. For example, growing trees like crab apples and bushes like winterberry are more likely to attract bluebirds in the winter months. Flowers that go to seed, like echinacea, attract goldfinches in the late summer and fall. Now is the time to figure out where you can fit these plants and shrubs into your landscape.

  • Houseplants - With the snow covering everything, my attention goes back to houseplants, such as African violets or orchids that need repotting. You can fertilize houseplants that show signs of new growth now as well.
Remember: spring is coming. The snow will melt. Onward!

I live in Central Connecticut and garden in Zone 6b.
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