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.
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.
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.
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.