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From the Archives: Snowdrops
By Dr Keith Lamb
For those who grow snowdrops the garden is never without interest. No sooner has the garden year ended in October than it begins again with the first snowdrops. Yes, you can have snowdrops in October if you are lucky enough to have Galanthus reginae-olgae. We had it in our Malahide garden but it did not re-establish here in the midlands, so we have to wait until November or early December for our first snowdrops (G. corcyrensis).
Other snowdrops are a great success here, the familiar common one (G. nivalis) coming in sheets everywhere, under the beeches and in thin grass. There are various other kinds that add much interest to the garden in the opening months of the year. Though in general they look similar, closer acquaintance shows that many are quite distinct.
The Straffan snowdrop originated in Ireland, and though like a good form of the common snowdrop in general appearance, it is valuable in that once established most of the bulbs throw up a second flower as the first goes over, thus giving a long season of bloom.
The Crimean snowdrop, too, has an Irish connection, for the story goes that bulbs were sent back from the Crimea by Lord Clarina. It is easy to recognise this species, for as the leaves push out of the soil their margins are folded back in a characteristic way, hence the name G. plicatus. Good forms of this species are some of the handsomest of snowdrops.
Another Irish snowdrop is G. ‘Hill Poe’; resembling a double form of G. plicatus, though perhaps a hybrid. It was first found in a County Tipperary garden belonging to the Poe family, where it attracted attention through having a much neater flower than the untidy double variant of the common snowdrop.
One other commonly grown snowdrop with folded leaves is G. byzantinus, but this differs from the Crimean snowdrop in having an extra blotch of green on the inner segments of the flower in addition to the familiar horseshoe shaped marking. This kind is variable both in size of flower and in season. We have seen an early flowering form that comes with the first snowdrops of spring.
Twisted leaves distinguish the Greek snowdrop (G. graecus). It is somewhat more dwarfed than the common kind, and pleases us by its freedom of flowering as well as its readiness to increase in a sunny spot. The Caucasian snowdrop (G. caucasius) also seems to need an open situation, for though it grows well with us in a shady spot it does not flower freely. The flowers are larger than those of the common snowdrop and are carried above leaves that curve backwards.
A very distinct group of snowdrops are those with green leaves, without the grey tint seen in the foliage of most snowdrops. G. ikariae has leaves as green as those of a bluebell. In addition to the typical form there is the subspecies latifolius, which is preferable in having a larger flower in better proportion to the broad leaves. Both kinds are robust and increase well. We cannot say the same of G. rhizensis, more delicate, and with narrow green leaves.
Our largest snowdrops centre mainly around G. elwesii, especially its variety maximum, though we have found some very large flowered individuals approximating to G. byzantinus. G. elwesii is distinct in that the grey leaves are very broad, and tend to be held upright until mature. The flowers resemble those of G. byzantinus in having an extra blotch of green.
Now we must leave the well marked species of snowdrop, for when many kinds are grown in one garden for long and seed themselves, puzzling hybrids and variations often appear. Some are distinct enough, like ‘Magnet’, which has flowers that swing in the wind on long peduncles (flower stalks). Often these spontaneous plants are good vigorous garden plants. The gardening journals of the early years of the 20th century often mention these garden forms, such as ‘Merlin’, ‘Galatea’, ‘Cassaba’ and many others.
One sort that has come down to us is the double snowdrop with yellow markings. In this the usual green markings are transformed to pale yellow, but it is an unstable freak, for in some seasons the flowers are apt to revert to the normal green colouring, but it may be yellow the following year. ‘Viridapice’ and ‘Scharlockii’ are two oddities with green tips to the outer segments of the flower, the latter having in addition two leafy prolongations from the flower stalk, like two ‘ears’ above the flower.
Snowdrops still vary and hybridise, so further new sorts will be found, some of them perhaps good garden plants. ● [This article first appeared in the RHSI’s Newsletter, January 1989] Where to see snowdrops:
Altamont Gardens, Tullow, Co Carlow. Phone 059 915 9444.
Primrose Hill, Lucan, Co Dublin.
Mount Usher Gardens, Ashford, Co Wicklow.
Bellefield House, Shinrone, Co Offaly.
Alpine Garden Society Ulster Group on
The Argory, 144 Derrycaw Road, Dungannon, Co Antrim.
048 8778 4753. email


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