Snowdrop Season

We are back in the cold again, but there’s something temporary about it and the snowdrops are here already, earlier this year than ever before in our 15 years in this house. They must have came up sometime around New Years’, because they were in full bloom when we first saw them, on January 31st.

It’s just one valiant little clump – over on the north side of the yard, underneath a group of tall hemlocks, beside the now- pointless privet hedge that used to screen a patio. That little slope will soon sprout creeping phlox and forget-me-nots and columbines and willowy hyacinths from the forced pots of years and years gone by, but in the early season it’s just green – or brown or white , depending – and those chaste-looking little flowers: white bells with dots or strokes of green that you must tip them up to see.

They’re probably Galanthus nivalis, or elwesii, I’ve never taken the time to see for sure. There are about 13 species of Galanthus, whose name comes from Greek words for milk and flower, and dozens and dozens of cultivars. Most of them bloom super-early, often through the snow. But according to the RHS , ” snowdrop” is not an environmental reference; it comes to us from the German Schneetropfen, a style of earring popular in the 16th and 17th centuries.

I’m not sure I believe this. Germans have been plant-conscious for a lot longer than a few centuries and it wouldn’t be a surprise to learn the earrings were named for the flowers. * In any case, the Society also says: “Several English vernacular names pre-date the name snowdrop, including Candlemas bells and fair maids of February, both of which are associated with Candlemas Day, 2 February, which is the peak of the flowering season.”

American bulb-sellers don’t offer anything like the assortment available to the Brits, but for a look at the possibilities, check out http://www.judyssnowdrops.co.uk. When you do, you’ll see dozens of subtle differences. You’ll also see that they’re all little white bells, and will probably be reconciled to the selections offered by http://www.munchkinnursery.com. http://www.brentandbeckysbulbs.com and http://www.johnscheepers.com/.

Because snowdrops bloom in spring, catalog sellers often put them in the autumn offerings and they often sell dry bulbs to plant along with the tulips and things. But most authorities agree that snowdrops should be planted “in the green,” and that is certainly when you should divide them, if you have access to a patch. I’ll post instructions here in early March.

Snowdrops are long lived and seldom bothered, though in wet years they get a fungus disease related to the one that whacks peonies, and in places where early spring is warm, they’re vulnerable to the narcissus bulb fly – a pernicious creature that should be called the amaryllis bulb fly. (Galanthus, like Narcissus, is in the Amaryllidaceae.) If you summer your amaryllis outside and have had trouble with bulbs that went hollow in the middle, it’s likely you’d see a fat hideous bulb-fly grub if you cut one in half. To avoid this problem in future, don’t put your amaryllis out until July, after the flies have laid their eggs.

*Note: After the podcast, my German friend Ilse wrote in to say that she grew up calling snowdrops Schneeglöckchen (snow bells). But she is only in her 80’s, so that may be the (comparatively) modern name.

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