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.
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.
There are more than 2,500 varieties and, although not a native species, they are now well established in the wild in the UK.
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.
Here are some other snowdrops facts you may not have known…
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
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. www.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. www.pencarrow.co.uk
Guide to growing your own 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.
Snowdrops have naturalised in British woodlands but are not a native species. Image: Getty
Varieties of snowdrops 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.