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Words: Graham Rice

The snowdrop is the classic winter flower, and in recent years enthusiasm for this dainty but resilient little bulb has grown beyond belief – some would say beyond reason! With the first trickle of varieties opening in autumn and then the flood coming into flower in January and February, a vast range of forms utlilising every possible variation in the simple flower structure, and making the most of just two main colours, delights our chilly eyes.

These choices, with a close relation the spring snowflake (Leucojum), have proved their worth in terms of both beauty and ease of cultivation and well deserve their AGMs.

Galanthus ‘Atkinsii’
Very early, vigorous and slightly honey-scented, ‘Atkinsii’ is distinctive in its outer 3.3cm (1.25in) petals being long and slender in shape. There is a green, heart-shaped mark at the tips of the inner petals. Another, small, distinctive feature is that one edge of one of each bulb’s two leaves is usually folded back. Introduced in the 1870s, similar plants with malformed flowers are often seen and known as ‘James Backhouse’.
Height: 20cm (8in).

Galanthus elwesii var. monostictus
Known, wrongly, as G. caucasicus for many years, it features broad, greyish leaves, one wrapped around the other at the base. The flowers have oval, pure white outer petals about 2.5cm (1in) long and a green, inverted 'V' mark at the tip of each inner petal. This mark never covers more than half the petal. Vigorous and dependable, occasionally flowering in autumn but usually in February. Grows wild in southern Turkey.
Height: 15cm (96in).

Galanthus ‘Magnet’
One of the most elegant of all snowdrops, flowering in February and March, and noted for the unusually long stalk which holds the flower away from the stem so it dances in the slightest whisper of breeze. A hybrid between G. nivalis and G. plicatus, the outer petals are similar to those of the familiar G. nivalis, and there is a small neat green mark at the tip of the inner petals. The leaves are narrow and greyish.
Height: 25cm (10in).

Galanthus nivalis
The familiar naturalised snowdrop of our February woods and gardens, the narrow foliage is grey-green, the edges touching at the base (not reflexed or overlapping). The flowers have outer petals about 2.5cm (1in) long and the inner petals have a small neat green inverted V at the tip. Often thought of as a British native, it was probably brought to Britain in the 16th century. Adaptable and resilient. Height: 15cm (6in).

Galanthus nivalis f. pleniflorus
‘Flore Pleno’

This familiar double form of the common snowdrop, this is a robust, vigorous and long-lived plant, spreading well in a variety of situations. The proliferation of inner, green-tipped petals gives the plant its double appearance, although the number varies greatly and is rarely neat; some may be distorted or long. Occasionally a fourth outer petal may be present. Known since at least 1703. Height: 15cm (6in).

Galanthus plicatus
A bold snowdrop, its broad foliage is dark green with a grey haze and is distinctive in that the leaf edges are folded back on themselves. The broad outer petals are up to 2.5cm (1in) long and heavily textured, the flowers have a generally rounded look. The position of the markings on the inner petals is rather variable: at the tip, at tip and base, or through the full length. Self seeds freely when happy. Height: 20cm (8in).

Galanthus reginae-olgae
subsp. reginae-olgae

The best known of the autumn-flowering snowdrops, and generally similar in appearance to G. nivalis, it may flower in early September, but usually opens in October or sometimes later. The leaves are absent, or very short, at flowering time. With 2.5cm (1in) outer petals broader towards the tip, the inner petals have an inverted 'V' or 'U' mark at the apex. Enjoys dryish summer conditions, perhaps among tree roots. Height: 15cm (6in).

Galanthus ‘S. Arnott’
A classic snowdrop for February and March, combining elegance and robustness, the large flowers, with their 3cm (1.25in) long, elliptical outer petals, make an attractively rounded flower, heavy in texture and delightfully honey-scented. The petals flare widely and prettily in winter sunshine while the inner petals feature a bold arch-like mark at the tips. The foliage always features at least one leaf edge which is reflexed. Especially good for cutting. Height: 15cm (6in).

Galanthus woronowii
Unusual among snowdrops in the bright green colouration of its broad glossy leaves which reflect winter sun brightly. The flowers, from January to March, are relatively small, with the outer petals just under 2.5cm (1in) long, the inner petals have a green mark at the tip shaped like a cloven hoof. Once rarely seen, in recent years bulbs imported from the wild have been seen in many garden centres. Height: 20cm (8in).

Leucojum vernum
Closely related to snowdrops, but distinct in that all the petals are the same length and all feature a bright green mark just above the tip. The result is what looks like a green-tipped white bell about 4cm (1.5in) across; one, or sometimes two, are carried on each stem in March. The long, dark green leaves are glossy and held erect with the flowers. Enjoys soil that does not dry out but is never waterlogged. Height: 25cm (10in).

Great snowdrop days out

Snowdrops at Cambo Gardens, Fife

We've put together a round-up of 10 snowdrop events and gardens to visit, to help you make the most of the snowdrop season.

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RHS Plant Selector

RHS Plant Selector

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