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Plant of the Week: Snowdrops

The University of Arkansas System Division of Agriculture does not promote, support or recommend plants featured in "Plant of the Week." Please consult your local Extension office for plants suitable for your region.

Plant of the Week

Latin: Galanthus nivalis

Picture of a snow drop plant
Snowdrops usher in spring each spring

Even though our winters seem to be getting shorter and milder, most of us are always ready to shed the cloak of winter and look forward to spring's arrival. In the garden, one of the first signs of spring is the arrival of snowdrops.

Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) are tiny spring blooming bulbs in the amaryllis family that would be easily overlooked if they bloomed later in the spring when there was competition. But because they show up in late February or early March, their dainty white flowers put on a pleasing display when little else is blooming.

Snowdrops are tiny plants usually only 4-6 inches tall. Each bulb large enough to bloom produces a pair of glaucous, gray-green, linear leaves that wither away about six weeks after blooming. From each bulb, arises a scape that extends above the leaves and bears a single blossom.

The blossom is produced from a parchment-like envelope that is used as a diagnostic feature separating members of the amaryllis family from the closely allied lily family. The white, three-sided bloom dangles from a short peduncle and is said to resemble an earring popular in 16th century Germany. The common name snowdrop is said to have come from the German word for this adornment.

Each blossom has three long sepals (tepals) that droop downward and surround three smaller petals (tepals) that are arranged in a crown-like circle in the center of the blossom. The smaller tepals are tipped by a green blotch or line.

About 19 species of snowdrops are described throughout most of western and southern Europe where they grow in moist woodlands, often blooming as the snow is melting. The species hybridize readily, and now most of the plants being offered by nurserymen are hybrids. Some wild collecting still occurs for the bulb trade and is threatening the survival of some of the rarer species.

For such a small thing, it is surprising there is so much interest in these tiny plants. Their popularity must come from their early arrival each spring, their easy care and the rise in popularity of small bulbs for use in rock gardens during the latter part of the 19th century. Today, snowdrop collectors, who must have every species and hybrid, are rarer but they're still around.

Galanthus nivalis is the most common snowdrop with double-flowered forms (Flore Pleno), forms with green blotches on the outer tepals (Vividi-apice) and named hybrids such as ‘White Dream' offered in the trade. G. elwesii - the giant snowdrop - is another commonly offered species.

Snowdrops are diminutive, so locate them where they won't get lost amongst larger plants. I often clump them together at the base of a rock wall, amongst the foliage of a low-growing groundcover such as vinca or use them in the rock garden. If content, they'll reseed freely and come up in unexpected spaces. They're hardy over a wide range from USDA zones 3 to 8. They do best in a moist woodland soil that is well drained but never completely dries out in the summer.

Unlike most bulbs the recommended time for moving them is while the foliage is still green, but after the plants have finished flowering. This makes it easier to find the plants. Replant the bulbs about 3 inches apart and 2 inches deep.

By: Gerald Klingaman, retired
Extension Horticulturist - Ornamentals
Extension News - March 6, 2009


The University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture does not maintain lists of retail outlets where these plants can be purchased. Please check your local nursery or other retail outlets to ask about the availability of these plants for your growing area.