Down to earth: Plan for snowdrops, not snow, to herald spring

Col—GreenSnowdrops

Col—GreenSnowdrops
I don’t think of myself as a plant snob. I love plants, probably almost enough to qualify as a true geek, but I’m not very particular. Plants like sweet allysum and lavender make my heart pound as much as the most complicated orchid or hellebore. I tend to shy away from becoming overly attached to plants like primroses, dahlias, and hostas that have their own societies of enthusiasts who hold monthly meetings. I’m too much of a loner to be that much of a joiner. But I realized recently, after staring at close-ups in a magazine for much longer than normal, that I might be a latent galanthophile.
Snowdrops have never wowed me before. Their tiny white egg-shaped flowers dangle only inches off the ground surrounded by a clump of grassy green blades. They hang for ages from a nobby ovary before opening three segments—they’re called tepals when the petals are indistinguishable from the sepals that form the outer bud jacket—to reveal (if you’re willing to get down on your belly for a look) an inner layer of three, or a multiple of three, more segments. I appreciate their appearance so early in the year (some have been blooming around here since early February) but have always used them to justify finger tapping impatiently for gaudier early birds like crocus, Siberian squill, trout lily, and daffodils. I generally prefer colorful flowers to white ones.
But just because they’re white doesn’t necessarily mean they’re colorless. According to “additive” color theory, white is the blending of all colors of light. As a painting student the “subtractive” theory, wherein white is the absence of color and black is the blend, made much more sense to me. Even though every time I mixed all the colors on my palette I got a purplish-brown mess. Now that I’m a plant lover suddenly attracted to snowdrops, I’m inclined to resubscribe to the former theory.
Besides, snowdrops are more colorful than I ever gave them credit for. Even the plainest are fancifully decorated or just barely tinged, mostly on the inner tepals, with spring green. Which happens to be one of my very favorite colors especially in flowers. (Go figure.) Out of the twenty or so species in the genus, Galanthus nivalis is the most commonly grown and variably tweaked by breeders and galanthophiles. It naturalizes freely by producing bulb offsets and by self-sowing, and what isn’t obvious from magazine centerfolds is that the flowers smell like honey on warm days. I’m suddenly desperate for the collectable cultivar ‘Magnet’, which dangles from extra long and gracefully curved stems and is well blotched with green on its inner segments. And there’s no way I can go through another March without the fully double (on the inside), ‘Flore Pleno’. But ‘Viridapice’ will probably end up being my favorite because even the outer segments blush green. For curiosity’s sake I might plant the yellow-tinged ‘Sandersii’ but in pictures they look anemic to me.
Giant snowdrop (G. elwesii) is also on my must-have list because its flowers, while not being at all colossal, are larger than the others and I should hope, more easily enjoyed from a distance. My plan, hatched this very minute, is to plant snowdrop drifts in a corner of my backyard border already home to budded hellebores and a few other later-spring bulbs. Not only do I like the idea of a “spring border” but I’ll be able to see them from my desk. That’s crucial whenever it’s blustery outside and cozy inside.
I wish I could buy the bulbs right now for instant gratification, but fall is the time to plant them, and summer the time for placing orders. In the meantime I’m stuck with pretty pictures. My consolation is that I know this craving too shall pass—probably just as soon as the snowdrops fade and the daffodils and trout lily bloom. Any day now.

Kristin Green is the interpretive horticulturist at Blithewold Mansion, Gardens & Arboretum in Bristol. Follow her garden blog at http://blog.blithewold.org.

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