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Spectacular snowdrops

misty rain builds large raindropsHuge raindrops develop on a snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) flower in light misty rain

As a child, every February I eagerly awaited a parcel from Suffolk. Inside would be our annual snowdrop delivery, picked by my grandmother from her farm and carefully packed in moss. Over half a century later, I still marvel every time I see how small white flowers eventually multiply into spectacular snowdrop drifts.

Snowdrops popular winter flowers Snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) carpet a deciduous woodland long before the trees leaf out

When to see snowdrops

Snowdrops, however, are not native to Britain; they occur in the wild from Spain across to the Caucasus, with most species found in Turkey. Galanthus nivalis has been cultivated in British gardens since the late sixteenth century but was not recorded in the wild until almost two centuries later.

The BSBI Atlas produced by the Botanical Society of Britain & Ireland shows how this snowdrop has spread over most of England and Wales, chiefly in eastern Scotland and into localised spots in Ireland.

One snowdrop bulb multiplies to form a clumpSnowdrop clumps develop from offsets that form around parent bulbs, here at Painswick Rococo Garden

In the 1990s, as new cultivars were discovered and bred, snowdrop enthusiasts – known as galanthophiles – flourished. Now there are over 20 snowdrop species listed in the Plant List and over 1500 varieties and cultivars, Most snowdrops – including G. nivalis have green ovaries and green marks on the inner short tepals. The latter are visible only when the outer tepals open on warmer days. The mark varies in size, shape and position among wild species and cultivars; a few prized ones have yellows ovaries and yellow marks. Sadly, a few rare variants have been stolen from gardens and shows.

Snowdrop marks only show in warm weather when outer tepals openGreen marks on snowdrop flowers. Left: Galanthus elwesii (an X) Right: Galanthus nivalis (inverted V)

One of the earliest snowdrops to flower is Galanthus reginae-olgae in October–November and G. elwesii usually flowers before Christmas. But February is the month to see spectacular snowdrop carpets; whether in deciduous woodlands, beside rivers, in churchyards, parks or larger gardens. The opening of the outer tepals is temperature dependent, so it varies from one year to another.

A snowdrop clump enhanced by backlighting Galanthus elwesii is an early snowdrop that flowers in autumn

Snowdrop gardens

Colesbourne Park in Gloucestershire is ‘England’s greatest snowdrop garden’ according to Country Life (1999). It is renowned for the range of species and cultivars originating from plantings of Henry John Elwes (1846–1922).

Both Painswick Rococo Garden (Gloucestershire) and Welford Park (Berkshire) are famed for their expansive snowdrop drifts amongst trees and they look particularly attractive with the river backdrop at Welford.

Mosses and snowdrops thrive beside a riverSnowdrops with River Lambourn backdrop in Welford Park

For other snowdrop gardens see the Great British Gardens list and the National Trust lists

In more rural areas, naturalised snowdrops appear in many deciduous woodlands, some of which can be spotted whilst driving along country lanes. If you belong to a Wildlife Trust, you may know of a local woodland with snowdrops that they manage.

How snowdrops reproduce

Regardless of the weather, snowdrops reproduce asexually by producing small offset bulbs, which take two to four years before they flower. This is how singletons gradually increase to a sizable clump.

Insects pollinate snowdropsInsect pollinators forage on snowdrops in a Surrey garden: drone fly (Eristalis tenax) and honeybee with copious pollen loads on undersides

Seed set is poor in snowdrops because the activity of insect pollinators is weather dependent. On warmer days (7–10ºC) with little wind, I have seen honeybees, bumblebees and hoverflies visit single snowdrops for nectar and pollen in February. Insects are most active in southern Britain when the sun is out and the wind is negligible, when they effectively pollinate single flowers. Double snowdrops such as ‘Flore Pleno’ are sterile, so cannot set seed.

Bees eye view as approaches open snowdropEnlarged view inside inner snowdrop tepals shows six anthers with central green stigma

After a honeybee or a drone fly lands on top of a flower, it crawls down to the opening.  If the longer outer tepals are removed from a single flower, the inner structure of the shorter tepals is seen. Green ridges help insect leg tips to gain a better grip. In the centre are six orange stamens, each with a terminal pore.  When an insect touches any anther tips with the proboscis or a leg, this results in pollen release that falls onto the underside of the insect.

When a fully open flower is shaken, pollen is released and falls out from the apical pores.

simulation of buzz pollination Simulation of buzz pollination shows pollen release from apical pores in snowdrop anthers

Whether encountered on their own in the wild or planted in gardens alongside enhanced colour from winter aconites or bare stems of Cornus or Salix, snowdrops never fail to uplift our spirits on the coldest of days. Snowdrop flowers last much longer during cold periods, when insect visitors are inactive.

Winter plants snowdrops and winter aconitiesSnowdrops and winter aconites (Eranthis hyemalis) are good winter companions

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