In the United Kingdom, snowdrop reports begin as early as mid January. By mid February, the region is literally crawling with enthusiasts from all over Europe. A galanthophile has to be on hands and knees to thoroughly appreciate the individual flowers.
A galanthophile can loosely be defined as an enthusiastic collector of the genus Galanthus or Snowdrops. Noted English plantsman E.A. Bowles most likely coined the term galanthophile. These folks are looking for those subtle markings that differentiate the varieties.
Of course you don’t have to be a galanthophile to enjoy snowdrops. Bus tours lead groups around to large estates that are known for their vast naturalized populations of snowdrops. Large sweeps of snowdrops intermixed with crocus, aconite and cyclamens that cover acres of woodland and meadow are the first real break from the gloomy hold of winter.
Snowdrop is an appropriate term in eastern USA since they are often found in bloom the day the snow melts away. My snowdrop season can start as early as the first week of February with the emergence of Galanthus elwessii. Elwessii will show itself early but it still has to deal with snowfall and consistently cold temperatures that subdues the true onset of bloom till late February or early March.
Of most interest to me is the common Snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis. This is the true harbinger of spring, bringing color and hope that winter’s icy grip is melting away. Galanthus nivalis is an excellent naturalizer. Once you have a few established clumps, its time to start dividing. Before long you have large sweeps of snowdrops in the landscape. It really is a case of the more the merrier.
One of the great virtues of snowdrops is the lack of disease and pest. The deer and squirrels do not eat them. They are also easy to divide. The best time to divide snowdrops is as they go dormant. This way you will still be able to determine where to fill in without planting over existing clumps. That being said, I have moved and divided snowdrops at all stages of growth with minimal setback to the bulb. Autumn is a good time to find bulbs sitting on the soil surface that have been forced to the top of existing clumps. Just pick them up and replant.
There are a few excellent and fairly common companions to plant with snowdrops. The first are the Tommy crocuses – Crocus tommasinianus. They begin blooming just days after the snowdrops start. Like snowdrops, they are easily spread and naturalized. They mostly come in shades of purple and pink and offer a nice contrast to the white of the snowdrops. Unlike many other crocuses, they are rodent proof.
The other companion is Winter aconite – Eranthis hyemalis. Winter aconite is an easily naturalized member of the Ranunculus or Buttercup family. If the weather is right they can start blooming in January – more often though they will begin the season in late February. Where they are happy, they form mats of foliage topped with a single yellow buttercup flower. I have found that the best way to establish winter aconite in your garden is to find a local source, collect the seed and broadcast where it is to grow. The following spring it will germinate with a small set of leaves. In years two and three it will develop true leaves and hopefully bloom by year three or four. If you do find a patch, close monitoring of the seed heads is necessary. Once they are ripe and the pods open, the seed falls quickly. I like to check the seeds often and when they start maturing into a darker color, I pick the unopened seed heads. It is important to sow the seeds soon after harvest.
By mid to late spring all three of these species are distant memories. They go dormant very early not to be seen again till the following year.
As far as galanthophilia goes, I am not opposed. There are many species and hundreds of varieties. You too can be a wacky collector with muddy knees. You could also go out and pay a record price for the latest rare variety. The current record occurred rather recently on EBay. 357 Euros for a single bulb of the variety ‘E.A. Bowles’. Most varieties are much more affordable.
I think many of these would be more suitable for intimate areas of the garden where ease of viewing would offer more in-depth looks at there subtle differences and beauty. My main interest lies not in collecting the numerous varieties but utilizing their ability to naturalize so readily, to create masses of color in the garden.
Whatever your interest in snowdrops, you will be rewarded for many years to come. They are a plant that keeps on giving, and they shine at a time when little else brings hope that winter is nearing its end.