I don’t care what the calendar says. For me, it’s not spring until there are flowers blooming somewhere in the yard. Here in growing zone 4, winter usually lasts well into March. So I count on snowdrops to get a jump on the season. Read on to learn what makes these early spring bulbs so special and how to grow snowdrops in your own garden and landscape.
Getting to Know Snowdrops
The Latin name for snowdrops is Galanthus, which means milk-white flower. From a distance, snowdrops all look pretty much the same. On closer inspection, you will see subtle variations in flower size, shape and markings. Galanthus nivalis is the snowdrop species that’s most commonly available, but there are hundreds of named cultivars to choose from. In fact, these early spring bulbs have an international fan club of devoted collectors who refer to themselves as “galanthophiles”. In England, rare varieties (from specialty growers such as Ashwood Nurseries) can sell for as much as $100 each.
Each snowdrop bulb produces two or three narrow leaves and one stalk, topped with a snow-white flower. The blossoms are distinctive: three large outer petals (sepals) and three much smaller inner petals that overlap to form a tube, decorated with lime-green markings. The flowers dangle from arching, whisper-thin stems that let them dance in the lightest breeze.
How to Plant Snowdrops
You can plant snowdrops as bulbs in the fall, or as plants in the spring. It’s best to purchase bulbs by mail because they are small and dry out quickly if left on a shelf. When you receive the bulbs, get them into the ground as quickly as possible, 2 to 3” deep and 2 to 3” apart.
In England, snowdrops are rarely offered as bulbs. It’s much more common to buy them “in the green.” Growers dig and divide snowdrops as soon as they finish blooming. These clumps are sold in pots or are wrapped and sent by mail. This practice hasn’t caught on in the US, yet it’s the best way to get a snowdrop collection established as quickly as possible. If you know someone who has snowdrops, ask to come over in the spring and get a few clumps for your garden.
Where to Plant Snowdrops
Snowdrops grow best in cool climates (hardiness zones 3 to 7). They enjoy full sun to light shade and rich, well-drained soil. Snowdrops are only 4 to 6” tall, so plant them in clumps for a bigger impact. They are happy growing beneath shade trees and deciduous shrubs, at the front of flower beds or in woodlands, stream sides and other natural settings. For extra-early blooms, plant them on a south-facing slope or sunny corner near the house.
Combine snowdrops with other early-flowering bulbs such as crocus, winter aconite, chionodoxa and scilla siberica. All of these bulbs are good naturalizers and will bloom year after year with little or no attention.
How to Grow Snowdrops
Like other spring-blooming bulbs, snowdrops need their foliage to generate energy for next year’s flowers. Resist the temptation to cut back the leaves or mow them down while they are still green. Be patient, and within a couple weeks the foliage will yellow and melt away on its own.
When snowdrops are growing in a location that suits them, they multiply readily and can eventually carpet large areas. The bulbs don’t mind being crowded and they rarely need dividing. If you want to move some bulbs to a new area or share them with friends, dig and divide them in early spring, right after flowering and before the foliage begins to yellow. Handle the bulbs carefully so the foliage stays attached, and replant as quickly as possible.
You may find it takes a couple years to get a good patch of snowdrops established. But once they have naturalized, they will spread themselves around and bloom every spring for generations to come.
Learn more here: Earliest Bulbs for Spring Gardens, Landscaping with Spring-Blooming Bulbs, Spring-Blooming Bulbs for Shady Gardens, Which Spring-Blooming Bulbs are Perennial, and How to Plan a Spring Bulb Garden.