They are as inevitable as taxes and shrinking sizes of chocolate bars: articles about snowdrops in February!
Although there is some debate about whether the common snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) is native or not, there is little doubt that it is one of the commonest plants in our gardens. The reasons are obvious: it is hardy, easy to grow and transplant and, just as winter seems as though it will never end, their brave little flowers are a welcome sign that spring is not far away. Of course, British springs are capricious, as the current weather makes clear, but snowdrops are not bothered by snow or cold. They may be flattened by frost but bounce back as the thaw sets in.
All snowdrops are very similar; they are instantly recognisable. The flowers are composed of three outer petals, usually plain white and three inner, smaller petals, usually marked with green. But there are seemingly infinite variations on this basic theme. The leaves too vary and are an aid to identification. The common snowdrop has two leaves, narrow and grey, set face-to-face. Others have wider leaves that are bent back at the edges, typified by G. plicatus and the other group has two leaves wrapped around each other, as in G. elwesii.
Snowdrops can be grown in borders, under trees and shrubs and also in grass. They can be planted in shade but some of the more unusual kinds, such as G. elwesii are better in sun. They are not fussy about soil type, tolerating clay or sand as long as it is not waterlogged.
Congested clumps tend to push the bulbs above the soil surface and that is a sign that they need to be divided and replanted. The best time to do this is as they start to die down but any time after they have finished flowering is fine. Dig up the clumps, try not to damage the roots, though that is inevitable, and split the clumps into groups of three to five bulbs and replant immediately.
This ‘planting in the green’ is the best way to plant and to buy snowdrops because they do not like to be dried out. Buying them growing in pots is also a good way to buy them.
Snowdrops die down in April, leaving a gap, but this is why they are so good under shrubs and trees. They are also perfect under herbaceous plants, such as peonies, which do not need constant division. They are nice planted among winter heathers and are perfect companions for winter-flowering Cyclamen coum and winter aconites.
In addition to the common snowdrop there is the common double, rather scruffy up close but more effective as a sheet of bloom. These are reasonably priced but there are hundreds of others, most of which are for serious collectors, called galanthophiles, because they can cost as much as a meal at your favourite restaurant, with the wine, for a single bulb.
But there are a few, such as ‘Allen’, ‘Magnet’ and ‘Atkinsii’ which are not too expensive and are larger and distinct, a good start to a collection.
Jobs for the week
Although it is still cold outside you can start a few seeds inside. As well as chitting potatoes, you can sow a few onions on the windowsill and herbs such as parsley.
If the weather does break, outside check tree ties and stakes, complete winter digging, get rid of weeds that have been growing over winter and mulch around shrubs. Cut back any remaining herbaceous stems which will also help expose slugs and snails.