How to: grow snowdrops
Photo - Michael McCoy
The true snowdrop is a delicate pearly bell only suited to cool climates. Michael McCoy is a fan.
In the dead of winter, when autumn leaves are long gone and bud swell on the trees is still months away, snowdrops explode into optimistic, spring-anticipating growth. And despite the hostile weather, they do so with notable poise and eye-catching elegance.
We’re not talking here about the reliable old snowflake (Leucojum sp), with green-tipped white flowers of 50-60cm. As good a plant as the snowflake is, it’s only a worthy old workhorse when placed beside the snowdrop, which hails from the genus Galanthus. Snowdrops produce only one flower per stem, but their closed buds are like elongated pearls, hanging from super-fine pedicels (flower stems). When the sun emerges, the three large outer petals (actually tepals) open out like propellers, looking as if they’re doing all they can to catch the rays. Most snowdrops are endearingly small, reaching only 7-12cm in height.
The best-known snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis, carries the common misnomer ‘English snowdrop’ as it has naturalised in English woodlands, having probably been introduced from Europe in the 16th century. It’s certainly made itself at home, carpeting many a wood with it’s sparkling mid-winter show.
All galanthus like a cool to cold winter, and grow best in cool, moist soils with plenty of humus. They’re happy drying out a bit over summer, but don’t ever want the summer bake loved by, say, the bearded iris. They’ll flower reliably in full sun in the coolest zones, but are equally happy in moderate shade, and will even succeed on the shady side of the house.
With plenty of gardening zones to suit (Southern Highlands, much of Victoria, all of Tasmania), it’s surprising that galanthus are not more common in Australian gardens. This has probably less to do with our gardening climate, than the fact that most of our common bulbs are transported when dry over summer and early autumn. Snowdrops are severely set back by this regime, and need to be kept hydrated while out of the ground. Traditionally they’ve been moved and replanted while still in leaf. This isn’t necessary; lifting and planting over summer is acceptable as long as bulbs are packed in moist material, such as peat or sphagnum moss.
Where to buy
Large bulb suppliers occasionally list the ‘English snowdrop’. A more reliable source is a specialist rare bulb grower, such as Hill View Rare Plants in Tasmania, 03 6224 0770.