The snowdrop may appear delicate but it is a hardy little plant, surviving snowfall and cold temperatures. It has long been associated with the winter – its Latin classification, Galanthus nivalis, literally means ‘milk flower of the snow’.
Snowdrops are a striking bloom in the winter months when little else is growing in the British countryside. Our snowdrop guide looks at the best snowdrop walks in the UK, snowdrop facts and how to grow your own.
When do snowdrops bloom in the UK?
Snowdrops flower between January and March, often appearing en masse and creating a characteristic ‘white blanket’ coverage. The species has long been associated with winter – the latin name, Galanthus nivalis, literally translates as ‘milk flower of the snow’. They thrive in lightly shaded woodland areas and can be found all around the UK.
In the 1950s, snowdrops would not typically flower until late February, but during the past few decades the teardrops of white have appeared ever earlier, and in particularly mild winters, snowdrops may not even wait for a New Year to begin.
Where are snowdrops found?
The snowdrop is native across Central and Southern Europe, and became naturalised within our native flora. In his book Types of Floral Mechanism (1908), Arthur Church suggests the snowdrop may have been brought to our shores by the Romans, but notes that the first-known cultivation of the plant was made by John Gerard in 1597.
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Varieties of snowdrops found in the UK
There are more than 2,500 varieties and, although not a native species, they are now well established in the wild in the UK.
‘Lady Beatrix Stanley’
One of the most widely grown snowdrops, this variety forms large clumps with stems up to 15cm/6in tall. The dainty double flowers bloom in February and early March and are faintly edged with green.
Single flowers bob and weave in the wind on stems which can grow up to 25cm/10in tall. It is a later flowering variety, blooming in late February and March and produces good-sized, neat flowers.
This variety produces large double flowers with layers of petals like a ballerina’s tutu. It has a honeyed scent and flowers in January and February.
How to identify snowdrops
The white flowers hang from a single stem with three inner petals (called tepals) curved into a tight pointed oval and three external petals loosely opening outwards. These flower heads can be ‘single’ – one layer of petals – or ‘double’ – multiple layers of petals – headed. The grassy foliage is a vibrant light green.
When formed, the flower hangs from the stem like a lantern on a ship’s bow, with the three outer tepals curved into a tight pointed oval that may appear solid. However, there is plenty of room for an insect to squeeze its way in and find pollen at a time when other food is scarce. The bracts later open, releasing the flower to droop downwards, with three outer tepals opening outwards and three inner tepals (white and light-green at the tip) remaining close together.
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Are snowdrops poisonous?
Snowdrop bulbs themselves are poisonous, a fact which perhaps lead to the superstition that a single snowdrop bloom in a house represents death. Due to the bulb’s likeness to its relative, the onion, it has often been mistakenly eaten, poisoning the unfortunate nibbler. It’s a good defence against hungry deer grazing on the flowers or squirrels digging up the bulbs, but a nasty surprise for anyone confusing them for shallots.
Snowdrops as medicine
Snowdrops and other plants from the Amaryllidaceae family have a naturally occurring substance in them called galantamine. This is sold as a medication to help treat the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease under the name of Reminyl.
Galantamine was first used, in eastern Europe in the 1950s to treat memory problems but it wasn’t until 2010 that it became widely used in the UK when the National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) authorised its use.
Snowdrops as a symbol of hope – and death
In British folklore; snowdrops have come to symbolise hope and purity. The flower, perhaps unsurprisingly given its status as one of the first signs of new spring life, has come to symbolise hope and consolation as well as purity. White is classically a colour associated with these traits. However…a superstition has developed around snowdrops. Although very pretty, a single flower indicates impending death and it should never be brought into the house. This is possibly as a result of the poisonous qualities it possesses.
Endangered and protected
Snowdrops, like many plant and animal species, are under threat in certain areas. They are protected under CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) rulings, aka the Washington Convention, and the trading of Snowdrop bulbs is tightly regulated. In most countries it is illegal to collect bulbs from the wild, the exceptions being Turkey and Georgia.
Not great pollinators
Part of the reason bulbs are so valuable is that once you have one, it can and will multiply. As the flowers tend to grow at a time of year when there are few pollinating insects around, the plant has had to develop a different approach to furthering its species. Bulbs will split when dormant and begin to sprout new flowers.
Snowdrops are a natural thermometer
Since the 1950s Kew Gardens have been monitoring the growth of snowdrops. In the mid-part of the 20th century they would generally appear in February, since the 1990’s they have been arriving increasingly quickly. These days they are sometimes found as early in the year as January, an indication of the UK’s changing climate.
Best snowdrop walks and gardens to visit in the UK
Snowdrop Valley, Exmoor, Somerset
Take a stroll in this picture-perfect valley carpeted in snowdrops. No cars allowed – you need to get a bus from the pub car park. visit-exmoor.co.uk
Snowdrops (Galanthus) flowering in North Hawkwell Wood, otherwise known as Snowdrop Valley, Exmoor National Park, Somerset (Getty)
Easton Walled Gardens, Lincolnshire
A fascinating new garden among the bones of an old garden whose house was demolished in the 1950s. Snowdrop Week 16 February 2019. visiteaston.co.uk
Anglesey Abbey Gardens, Cambridgeshire
A long walk studded with stems of every colour, gloriously barked trees and, of course, lots of snowdrops. Gardens and abbey open daily. nationaltrust.org.uk/anglesey-abbey-gardens-and-lode-mill
Cambo Estate, Fife
Cambo holds the National Collection of Galanthus – you can see 350 different kinds.
Burton Agnes Hall, Yorkshire
Another lovely woodland setting for a great sweep of snowdrops set in the grounds of this fine Elizabethan house. Gardens open daily. burtonagnes.com
Hopton Hall, Derbyshire
A relatively recent snowdrop garden, which emerged from the overgrowth in the last decade or so – after a lot of chopping and clearing. hoptonhall.co.uk/snowdrop-walk
Hodsock Priory, Nottinghamshire
In snowdrop season there will be talks every day about Hodsock’s rich and varied history. Open daily, 10 February to 4 March 2018. hodsockpriory.com
Walsingham Abbey, Norfolk
What this collection lacks in exotic varieties it makes up for in romantic abundance. Snowdrop walks daily, January to March 2019. walsinghamabbey.com
Chirk Castle, Wrexham
This great castle was built during the reign of Edward I. Here, snowdrops flow out from the formal borders into the surrounding woodlands. nationaltrust.org.uk/chirk-castle
Painswick Rococo Garden, Gloucestershire
In the 1870s, John Atkins propagated a bulb here that was later named Galanthus ‘Atkinsii’ and is viewed by horticulturalists as one of the best varieties. Open daily. rococogarden.org.uk
Lacock Abbey, Wiltshire
As well as snowdrops there is a great museum here that traces the history of photography. Grounds open daily.
Pencarrow House, Cornwall
A pioneer among gardens as it is not only home to the first Victorian rock garden but also the first monkey puzzle tree in England. Gardens open on Snowdrop Sundays in February. pencarrow.co.uk
How to grow snowdrops
When to plant snowdrops
Snowdrops should be planted in spring, when the plants have finished flowering and are still green. Don’t be tempted to trim the leaves off – leaving them to die down naturally will allow the goodness to be absorbed back into the bulb, feeding next year’s buds.
How to plant snowdrop bulbs
Dig holes 10-15cm deep and plant 6-8 bulbs in each hole. Refill the hole and ensure some leaf remains above the surface.
The best soil for snowdrops
Snowdrops are happiest in well-drained soil with light shade. If your soil is heavy use sand or grit to improve drainage. Add leafmould or compost when planting out to help retain moisture during the dry summer months.
How to divide snowdrops
When large clumps of snowdrops have become well-established they can become reluctant to flower – digging up and dividing the bulbs every few years will ensure prolific and annual flowers.
Dig deeply all around the snowdrop clump with a small garden fork, before levering it up and out. Gently tear the bulbs apart and pick off any remaining flowerheads to concentrate energy in the bulbs.