Waiting For Snowdrops

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I remember golden yellow daffodils blooming in mid-December of 2012 near the James River.  They looked so unnatural nodding their cheerful yellow heads right as Christmas lights were shining and we were deeply into holiday preparations.  They brought with them a horrible foreboding that our seasons were dangerously out of whack.

This December brought a few late roses and early Forsythia blossoms, but blessedly no daffodils. Those of us who choose to live in the temperate areas of the planet appreciate each of our seasons.  When they are out of whack, we feel a bit cheated to have missed out on the special joys and beauties of that time of year.

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No, wintery cold weather came early in 2013, and has settled into our Virginia landscape much later into the spring than we’ve come to expect.  Our bare winter landscape is browned out.  Even some evergreen leaves, normally vibrantly green throughout the winter, have been frozen into dull brownness.

Snowdrops, Galanthus nivalis, is the earliest bulb of spring.  Even their name explains their special place in the late winter garden.

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The genus, Galanthus, is derived from the Greek for “milk,” gala,” and “flower,” anthos.  All Galanthus are creamy white, so “milk flower” is an appropriate and descriptive genus name.  The species name, nivalis, means “of the snow.”  Named by Carl Linnaeus in 1735, the snowdrop is called, “milk flower of the snow.”  “Of the snow” refers to both its pristine white appearance, and also to the fact that snowdrops often bloom so early that snow is still on the ground.

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Snowdrops are our earliest bulb in the garden this year.  Not even Crocus, another early bloomer, or Muscari have opened yet.  Although I found Crocus last week on a sunny bank along the roadside in our community, none have appeared yet in our own garden.

Perhaps because our own winter has been so long and unusually cold, we treasure every jewel like bloom.  Each one is greeted with appreciation and happiness because the clear message each holds is the promise that spring has begun unfolding for us.

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Even during this warm stretch of four days we’ve enjoyed, the local weather forecasters have kept up their warnings of more snow on the way.  We’ll drop back to freezing tonight, and we expect an inch of snow on Wednesday, followed by more freezing snow and sleet by the weekend.  By Wednesday morning our own snowdrops will bravely bloom above a white carpet of fresh snow.

Galanthus nivalis are native to Northern Europe.  They are well adapted to grow and bloom in the freezing weather of late winter and early spring in zones 3-7.  Williamsburg, Virginia, is on the southern border of their range here in the United States.

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Perhaps because they are the first bulb of spring, they’ve been hybridized and planted widely throughout Europe and the British Isles.  In fact, they are so popular in Britain, Scotland, Wales and  Northern Ireland that many of us assume that to be their native habitat.

Although widely naturalized in beautiful drifts in woodlands and meadows, snowdrops, or “February fairmaids” as they are often called, probably first crossed the Channel with the Romans.  Popularized in the early Sixteenth Century, they were part of the nursery trade between Europe, The British Isles, and the Colonies in North America.  Snowdrops are so treasured in the British Isles that many avid gardeners take tours in February to see them in bloom, alongside Hellebores and early shrubs.

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Snowdrops, like many bulbs, are absolutely simple to grow.  Although it’s always wise to prepare the ground for anything, tiny snowdrop bulbs can be set into tiny drills in the ground, about 2 inches deep, covered, and left alone.  They are quite beautiful naturalized into lawn, under trees and along ponds and creeks; planted in  beds and borders or pots; or even grown in tiny pots to bring in as houseplants during late winter.

Planted in autumn, they need several weeks of cold weather before they’ll begin to grow.  I bought several dozen bulbs this year in December and planted them “second knuckle deep” in outdoor planters where I am growing Violas, Heucheras, ferns, and shrubs.  When I switch out the winter/spring plants for summer ones, I’ll lift the Galanthus bulbs and “plant them in the green” elsewhere in the garden.

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All bulbs need several weeks after bloom time for their leaves to create sugars for next year’s growth.  It is important to leave their leaves freely growing until they die back naturally in early summer.  Doing this prepares the bulb for next spring’s show, and also allows the bulb to create offsets, or new baby bulbs around its base.  When you dig bulbs out of their pots in May you’ll notice several tiny bulbs surrounding the one originally planted the previous fall.

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This is how bulbs spread, and eventually naturalize an area.  Many Galanthus, won’t produce viable seeds.  They are hybrids.  The only way to increase your bulb display year to year is to dig and divide them.  “Planting in the green” means one carefully lifts the bulb, leaving all of the leaves intact, and then gently replants the bulbs at the same depth where they will permanently grow.  Water the clump in well, and allow the foliage to continue growing until it naturally dies back.  No fertilizer is needed, but if helps any plant to give it a drink of dilute fish emulsion or sea weed emulsion from time to time.

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Galanthus really shine in a natural setting.  They are beautiful growing at the base of trees, along paths, creeks and ponds.  They are individually so tiny, at only about 5″ tall, it is best to plant a great mass of them for a big impact.  Plant them where you’ll pass them frequently and pause to enjoy their delicate beauty up close.

You might also want to mark them so you won’t forget where they are and accidentally dig them up later in the season.  Ignored by deer, they grow well in a wide range of soils, in part sun to partial shade.  They prefer moist soil when in active growth, but winter soils are generally moist in our area.

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So in our Forest Garden we are waiting and watching for snowdrops to uncurl their petals as our first tangible harbinger of the change of seasons.  Even though winter is returning to our garden tonight, we know its days are numbered, and our snowdrops promise that spring has already begun.

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Photos by Woodland Gnome 2014

“The snowdrop and primrose our woodlands adorn,
and violets bathe in the wet o’ the morn.”

Robert Burns

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