Are all snowdrops the same?
What could be better on a cold February day than to wander in a wood, park or garden where there are geat swathes of snowdrops under ancient trees, bared of their leaves and letting in the weak sunlight. Absolutely nothing!
There are many such places famed for their wonderful displays and some people, custodians of much smaller patches, manage to replicate the effect, perhaps combining the snowdrops with winter aconites and crocus. And that too must be a delightful place to be.
What do you think – are all snowdrops the same?
From a distance the snowdrops probably all look the same and they might well be. But maybe, just maybe, if you look really closely there might be an extra green mark here, a bigger leaf there, a taller or shorter one, unusal-shaped petals, a long or a short pedicel, or a double flower.
These differences are much more likely if more than one species has been introduced into the colony, and they have been noticed, noted, selected, and named over the last 150 years so that now we have many hundreds of varieties that keen collectors can grow in their gardens.
Here are just a few, each one with a name and a personality and a story to tell. Some are tall and upright, other small and delicate. Some are strong and good-doers, others need cosseting and looking after. Early or late, leaves big and wide or narrow and grasslike, big flowers or tiny – the list of variations is very long. And every year they return, in a bigger clump if you’re lucky, each one exactly the same as before.
I really don’t know what is so special about growing snowdrops but what I do know is, it’s great fun!
Are all snowdrops the same?
I think I have shown that they are not. But perhaps we need a bit of detail.
In this post I will concentrate on the flowers.
Let’s look at the flowers
If we look closely, we can see all the different parts of the flower where variation might occur.
Outer perianth segments
The snowdrop flower has three outer perianth segments, finely striated and usually all white, although some can have green markings at the apex. They are deeply concave, like the bowl of a spoon, and can vary in size and shape as you can see from these two examples.
In Galanthus ‘Wasp‘ the outer segments are about 30mm long, three times their width, and stronly incurved, making them look even narrower.
Whereas in Galanthus plicatus ‘Augustus’ the outer segments are rounded, about 20mm long and wide, deeply concave, and have this wonderful puckering, which sets them apart from most other snowdrops.
Inner perianth segments
The snowdrop flower also has three inner perianth segments, which are about half the size of the outer ones and form a loose tube-like structure. Each segment has a small notch at its apex known as the sinus.
Nearly all snowdrops have a green apical mark, variously described as V- or U-shaped, horseshoe, bridge or heart-shaped. This mark can be quite large or, sometimes, so reduced that it appears as a dot on either side of the sinus.
Galanthus ‘Ginns’ Imperati’ only has an apical mark and it is a widely splayed V shape. That in Galanthus ‘Armine’ consists of two joined pips either side of a large sinus.
Some snowdrops also have another, basal, mark. These can vary hugely in size and intensity from a small smudge at the very base to a large green band covering most of the basal part of the segment.
Sometimes the two marks come together so that the whole segment is coloured green, perhaps with a waist where the two marks join or they might fuse into a cross or X-shaped mark. The possibilities for different combinations of marks is, as you might imagine, endless. You can see some examples in the images above.
The basal mark in Galanthus ‘Armine’ is separate from the apical one and consists of two oblongs with a more diffuse area between the two.
The floral parts are inserted onto the receptacle, which encases the ovary, but the whole structure is usually referred to as the ovary. It can range in size from almost nonexistant to very large and bulbous, and in colour from pale to dark green.
The ovary in Galanthus ‘Lapwing’ is long and narrow with no constriction at its junction with the segments.
The contrast with Galanthus ‘Tubby Merlin’ is very striking. Here the ovary is rounded and the constriction very obvious.
The snowdrop flower hangs on a fine, thread-like structure, the pedicel. When the pedicel is short and held within the spathe, the flower is held close to the scape, or stem, which gives the plant an erect, upright character as here in Galanthus ‘Homersfield’.
However, when the pedicel is long and arching, as in Galanthus plicatus ‘Percy Picton’, the flower is allowed more freedom of movement. This is very noticeable when the slightest breeze keeps the flowers in constant motion.
Breaking the rules
There are now numerous snowdrops that don’t follow the ‘normal’ snowdrop structure outlined above, introducing yet more variation.
There are many with double flowers, of which Galanthus ‘Ailwyn’ is an example. It has the normal three outer segments and between 9 and 15 inner segments, arranged in whorls of three and diminishing in size towards the centre.
Poculiform snowdrops, in which the inner segments have more or less the same dimensions and appearance as the outer ones, were once considered rare. With the increased interest in the genus, many more have been discovered and it has been realized that it’s a more frequent variant than was supposed.
Here we have Galanthus nivalis ‘Angelique’ as an example. It tends towards, but is not a true, poculiform because the inner segments are not quite the same size as the outer and they have a sinus and very small apical marks. One might refer to a variation within a variation!
Even more extraordinary are those described as inverse poculiform, where the outer segments are replaced by a whorl of inner segments showing green marks and often an apical notch. As they expand the segments of the outer whorl sometimes reflex, giving a very unusual but attractive shape, as can be seen in Galanthus ‘Copton Trym’.
Another deviation from the norm can occur in the parts of the flower that are usually green. In certain cultivars, such as Galanthus plicatus ‘Wendy’s Gold’, the inner segment mark and the ovary are yellow. If your interest is piqued, you can find out more in a post I wrote about them here.
There are some cultivars with more than the usual number of outer and inner segments. Here we have Galanthus elwesii ‘Godfrey Owen’, which has six, symmetrically arranged, pure white outer and six inner segments with two small dots either side of the sinus.
There’s more to snowdrops than just the flowers
In this post I have only dealt with the snowdrop flower but, of course, there are other parts of the plant where further variation can occur: leaves, scape, spathe, and, the part not often seen, bulb. I would like to return to the subject but must now wait until next year.
Have I answered my own question? Are all snowdrops the same?
I think the answer must be, “No, and thank goodness they’re not” I hope I have shown, not only what huge variation there can be between different snowdrops, but what an interesting and exciting subject it is to get caught up in. Add to this the pleasure of growing and nurturing plants and the enjoyment of seeing each one flower in its turn and, perhaps, you can see why some people think February is one of the best months of the year!
Find some useful information
This page on the Cambridge University Botanic Garden site has a wide range of information.
Avon Bulbs has an interesting blog with some articles about snowdrops and lots of photographs of unusual ones – and the chance to buy when the time is right.
Snowdrops worth growing and searching for – an article on The Alpine Garden Society website.
The galanthophile’s bible, Snowdrops by Matt Bishop, Aaron Davis, John Grimshaw, published by The Griffin Press, probably contains everything you need to know.
The Genus Galanthus by Aaron Davis, published by Timber Press, is a more detailed and scientific study of the snowdrop, its species, and some of the many cultivars.
A Gardener’s Guide to Snowdrops by Freda Cox, published by The Crowood Press, is another favourite with many growers. It contains drawings and descriptions of hundreds of snowdrops, which makes studying and identifying them very much easier.
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