Caren White is a Master Gardener and instructor at Home Gardeners School. She has been associated with Rutgers Gardens for over a decade.
By the end of February, when I am sick of snow and cold, you will find me eagerly searching my garden for the first snowdrops. When they start blooming, I know that spring is near at hand, and the rest of my colorful spring bulbs will soon be making their appearance, brightening my garden after a long winter of drab brown.
What are Snowdrops?
Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) are perennial bulbs that are native to Europe and the Middle East. They are hardy in zones 3 through 7. They are so hardy, in fact, that they often appear and bloom while there is still snow on the ground.
They naturalize easily and became so abundant in Great Britain that it was long believed that they were a native flower or that they were introduced by the Romans. They were actually introduced there in the 1600s. There are now many snowdrop gardens throughout Great Britain and Ireland which are very popular in February when the bulbs are in bloom.
Snowdrops are related to amaryllis and daffodils. They are often confused with snowflakes which are much larger and bloom in late spring or early summer depending on the species. Most snowdrops bloom in the early spring but there are some that bloom in the fall.
The most common snowdrops are very tiny, only 3 to 6 inches tall. Unlike their snowflake cousins which produce multiple flowers, each snowdrop bulb produces a single flower. The flowers have six petals, three white outer petals and three inner petals which are also white but with a green blotch. The flowers hang down from the stem. Before they open, they look like pearl pendant earrings.
How to Grow Snowdrops
Snowdrop bulbs are planted in the fall. Each tiny bulb should be planted 2 to 3 inches deep. Because the flowers are small, for the biggest impact you should plant the bulbs 2 to 3 inches apart in large groups. In the spring, rather than tiny white dots spread out in your garden, you will have masses of white flowers looking like leftover snow.
Snowdrops love full sun but can be planted under deciduous trees. They grow, bloom and die so early in the spring that the trees have not yet leafed out so the bulbs will get plenty of sun.
After the plants bloom, the leaves remain for a few weeks storing up food in the bulb for next year. They can look unsightly as they gradually turn yellow and die but resist the temptation to remove them until they are fully dead to make sure that your bulbs have enough food to bloom next spring. A good strategy is to plant other spring flowers around your snowdrops to hide the dying foliage.
How to Divide Snowdrops
Snowdrops reproduce via two methods: offsets and seed. Offsets are small bulbs that develop around the main or mother bulb. This is how those large masses of snowdrops develop. It’s a good idea to dig up and separate the bulbs every few years. The offsets can be separated from the main bulbs and planted elsewhere. If you leave the bulbs alone, they will become overcrowded and stop blooming. It can also encourage disease.
How to Grow Snowdrops From Seed
When the flowers fade on your plants, they are replaced by green “fruit” which are seed cases. As they ripen, they pull the stem down to the ground where they can release the seeds to either grow in place or be carried off by ants in different directions to their nests.
If you wish to grow snowdrops from seed, you will need to gather the seed as soon as it is released. The seed must be fresh for best germination. Using netting or cheesecloth tied around the fruit before it ripens, you can catch the seeds when the fruit ripens and the seeds are released. Plant your seeds 2 to 3 inches deep just as you would the bulbs and the seedlings will germinate the following spring.
Are Snowdrops Poisonous?
Snowdrops are one of those plants like daffodils that deer don’t eat. That’s because like daffodils, they are poisonous. But they are also poisonous for humans, dogs and cats. Keep children away from the garden while your bulbs are growing and blooming. Keep your dogs on a leash and away from your garden. And keep an eye on your cats to make sure that they are not digging in that bed and coming in contact with the plants or the bulbs.
It’s a good idea to wear gloves any time that you are handling the bulbs and plants. The toxin can irritate your skin causing dermatitis. Wash your hands thoroughly after working with snowdrops.
Questions & Answers
Question: If you eat a leaf of the snowdrop, would it cause sickness?
Answer: Yes, snowdrops are poisonous for both humans and animals. Be sure to keep your pets and small children away from them.
© 2018 Caren White
Dianna Mendez on April 14, 2018:
A field of these flowers does look like snow and I would enjoy a walk to see them in bloom. Thank you for sharing on this pretty flower.
Mary Norton from Ontario, Canada on April 02, 2018:
You are right about snowdrops in February, such messengers of hope.