Snowdrop mania – a very modern phenomenon


Snowdrop mania – healthy obsession or utter madness?

Leucoium bulbosum praecox minus – Timely flouring bulbous Violet

“The first of these bulbous Violets riseth out of the ground, with two small leaves flat and crested, of an overworne greene colour, betweene the which riseth up a small and tender stalke of two hands high; at the top whereof commeth forth of a skinny hood a small white floure of the bignesse of a Violet, compact of six leaves, three bigger, and three lesser, tipped at the points with a light greene: the smaller are fashioned into the vulgar forme of a heart, and pretily edged about with greene; the other three leaves are longer, and sharpe pointed. The whole floure hangeth downe his head, by reason of the weake foot stalke whereon it groweth. The root is small, white, and bulbous.”

Sound familiar? This is the description in Gerard’s Herbal of 1597, presumably of Galanthus nivalis. There is some doubt as to whether or not it is native to the British Isles – Gerard writes ” These plants do grow wilde in Italy and the places adjacent. Notwithstanding our London gardens have taken possession of most of them many yeares past.” There is little mention of snowdrops in early herbals and they weren’t recorded as growing wild in Britain until 1770’s, when they were found in Gloucestershire and Worcestershire.

Interest grew in the nineteenth century and in 1879 the Gardener’s Chronicle mentions four species and nine forms of G. nivalis. By the time of the RHS Snowdrop Conference in 1891 there were seven or eight species in cultivation and over firty cultivars. When E.A. Bowles wrote in 1918 this number had dwindled to 25, a loss thought to have been due to an outbreak disease. In Sir Frederick Stern’s Snowdrops and Snowflakes (1956) Bowles lists 137 named snowdrops but many were already extinct or lost. In the Alpine Garden Society’s Encyclopaedia of Alpines, published in 1993, 108 cultivars are listed. Snowdrops by Matt Bishop, Aaron Davis and John Grimshaw, published in 2001, covers more than 500 cultivars.

Many people dismiss galanthophilia as nonsense – a snowdrop is a snowdrop and that’s that, and not a very interesting that, at that! They were even known as Death’s Flower since, in several counties in England, it was thought unlucky to bring snowdrops into the house.


But the more one looks at this delicate white flower the more one notices. At first glance identical twins look the same but the more carefully you look and the better you get to know them the more the individuality of each one stands out. And so it is with snowdrops. Close inspection brings enormous rewards as each little difference becomes apparent. Here are just a few of the many forms you may come across. None of them is rare – you might see them at one of the many snowdrop events that have sprung up across the country.

Galanthus ‘Magnet’
Raised by James Allen in 1888, this snowdrop is unusual in its long and slender pedicel, which holds the flower away from spathe. This causes the flower to swing in the slightest breeze making this variety recognizable even from a distance.

Galanthus ‘Merlin’
Another very well known variety. It has rounded flowers with deep green marks on the inner segments extending to the base and a large, round ovary.

Galanthus nivalis ‘Viridapice’
It would seem that this name has been applied to many different clones with varying degrees of green markings on their outer segments. Lots of room for discussion – there’s nothing galanthophiles like better!

Galanthus woronowii is unusual in that it has wide, green, shiny leaves rather than the glaucous ones of most other species. It is becoming more popular and easier to obtain.