A Flower Called Hope

At this time of year many of us are on the lookout for whatever signs of spring we can find. The first true, native wildflower of spring, Eastern Skunk Cabbage (Symplocarpus foetidus), has been in bloom among swamps and streams for weeks now. But the first harbingers of spring in many of our yards and gardens are the snowdrops (Galanthus spp.). Seeing this flower in bloom gets the blood flowing with the realization that spring will soon arrive. I just found it in bud at my doorstep after the snow melted.

Common Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) in bud next to my back door, just after the snow melted. Photo by the author.

The name of the genus Galanthus is from ancient Greek (gála, milk, and anthos, flower). The most commonly cultivated species, the Common Snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis), aptly translates to “the milk flower of the snow.” This is the species that has been in cultivation for years and is the one that most of us have in our gardens.

A close up of the Common Snowdrops flower. The flower has three long, curved tepals (undifferentiated between petals and sepals) and three smaller, hooked tepals. Photo by Andreas Eichler, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

The Common Snowdrop grows in the wild in woodlands and by streams in almost all of Europe, except England, Scotland, Ireland, and Wales. It was probably introduced in England in the 16th century. Some Brits, known as galanthophiles, are absolutely mad about their snowdrops. There are now more than 2,500 varieties and hybrids. In 2015, one plant, Galanthus ‘Golden Fleece’, sold on eBay for 1,390 pounds (US$1,940)! During the Second World War, US military police stationed in England were called snowdrops by the British because of their green uniforms and white hats and gloves.

Snowdrops are members of the Amaryllis family, Amaryllidaceae. They, like Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum), are true spring ephemerals, franticly flowering in late winter’s bright light and then withering away. But, unlike Trout Lily, they are not native New Englanders, having jumped ship from the Old World.

There are about 20 species throughout Europe and Asia and new species are still being identified. The most recent was discovered in 2012, Galanthus panjutinii. It is endangered, and only found in Georgia and Russia. One population was destroyed during preparations for the Olympic Games in Sochi. Many species are threatened from habitat loss, over-collecting, and climate change. So, it is best to stick with varieties that have been in the trade for a while and are nursery propagated.

Distribution map of Galanthus species. Even with a wide distribution, Common Snowdrops (G. nivalis, #1 on the map) is threatened in the wild, like many species. Image by Nalagtus, CC BY-SA 4.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0&gt;, via Wikimedia Commons.

Reproduction in snowdrops mainly occurs with the bulbs creating offsets, as these plants bloom so early there aren’t many pollinators out yet. The occasional early-emerging queen bumblebee might pollinate a few flowers. If that happens, capsules form with seeds that contain hooked elaiosomes, which are attached fatty packets that attract ants. Ants then carry the seeds to their nest, eat the elaiosomes, and put the seeds in their dump pile, thereby planting the seeds.

You can take advantage of bulb offsets by dividing snowdrops when they are “in the green,” just after flowering. Dig up the whole plant, bulbs and all, separate it into smaller clumps, and then plant those. You can quickly have good-sized patches in a relatively short time.

During the 19th century, in both England and the United States, the cultural practice called floriography, or “the language of flowers,” was all the rage. It’s a way to communicate using flowers, and we still do it today, with red roses that symbolize love and yellow roses for friendship. Snowdrops represent hope. In this time of division and hardship, let’s celebrate the hope that comes with increasing light and warmth and better days ahead.

Published by Jim Sirch

Jim Sirch is the author of Beyond Your Back Door, a weekly blog about nature in your neighborhood. He is also Education Coordinator for the Yale Peabody Museum, a UConn Master Gardener and board member of his local land trust. As a trained naturalist, he brings a deep understanding of geology, plants and wildlife and how they interact within a particular ecosystem. He holds a B.S in Forestry from West Virginia University, a B.S. from Miami University in Science Education; and an M.S. in Environmental Studies Administration from Antioch University. He is also the 2014 Sigmund Abeles Award recipient from the Connecticut Science Teachers and Supervisors Association for outstanding science teaching and professional development.

18 thoughts on “A Flower Called Hope

  1. The bulbs in our front garden, that were already up in late January, have survived wonderfully even under a ton of snow. They even grew a bit. Amazing. I’d have gone back underground if I were them!

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  2. Jim, normally I love reading your post. However I think you should deal mainly in native species, especially those that grow in the wild. When you mention that snow drops are really a Eurasian specie, and you did not say when they were introduced to the knighted states, I became disinterested. I hope they do not naturalize into our woods, do they? There are small yellow flowers that are shaped somewhat like the snow drops that seem to be growing naturally in the woods in May. I don’t recall their name, do you?

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    1. Hi Suzie, sorry you weren’t interested. You should know that most of the time what I will be focusing on are native plants and wildlife. That is my interest. I was hearing how pleased people were to snowdrops coming up in their yards that I thought I would write about it. Snowdrops are not invasive here in Connecticut. Sometimes a new plant may pop up here and there but they don’t take over or displace native plants. I don’t know of a yellow flowering plant that looks like snowdrops, but the Celandines are two yellow flowering plants that are often found in yards . There is a nasty invasive called Lesser Celandine (Ficaria verna) which grows particularly along stream banks and wetlands and can absolutely take over. Another plant is Greater Celandine (Chelidonium majus) which can spread through yards and woodland edges and can also displace plants. It is not on the CT Invasive Plant List but Lesser Celandine is.

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    2. Hi Susie, I wanted to let you know that Susan responded to your comment and thought that the yellow flower you were referring to was Trout Lily (Erythronium americanum). It has a down-pointing yellow flower. It’s leaves are green but speckled or blotched with brown (like a trout). Is that what you have? If it is, that’s a native spring wildflower that should be left alone. You are lucky to have them. They form patches but are not too easy to propagate as they take up to 7 years to flower. They also have a very deep bulb. Cheers, Jim

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      1. I totally agree too Eileen. Please note that I am not advocating for a yard full of non-native plants. Doug Tallamy, the “guru” of native plants in our landscapes, asks that we should work toward having at least 70% native plants in our yards. I am working towards that. That said, I do put out early spring bulbs like snowdrops and crocus for the early emerging native bees, and they have been loaded with these early pollinators in the last few days!

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  3. Thank you! I don’t have any of these beautiful flowers. I do have hyacinth (purple and white) that I planted years ago. Seeing those come up mean Spring for me. This article was very interesting and informative.

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    1. Thx Diane! I have a few of those too. I am also planting grape hyacinths (Muscari spp.) as well as other spring bulbs in a section of grass too. But, my focus is to gradually get rid of lawn and plant natives for pollinators.

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  4. I am pretty sure Susie is referring to the Trout Lily, found abundantly in the woods in April and a native. It is yellow and its flower hangs like a bell.
    Thanks for the information on snowdrops. I saw my first set blooming outside our elementary school on Friday.

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    1. I think you are probably right Susan – thx for the thinking of them! I mentioned Trout Lily in my post on spring ephemerals last year. There is a native solitary bee that is dependent on Trout Lily pollen. Thx, Jim

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  5. NIce article, Jim. We saw some snowdrops last week … and some purple crocuses too, during a weekend walk in the East Rock neighborhood!

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