Sunday, January 20, 2019

A Passion for Snowdrops

Carolyn Walker

Carolyn Walker will tell you that serendipity played a small role in her passion for snowdrops. When she and her husband bought a gardener's cottage on an old estate in the winter of 1983, they had no idea that thousands of snowdrops lay hidden under the snow.

Much to Carolyn's delight the tiny, honey-scented blooms began to appear the following spring. Discovering thousands of snowdrops in late winter was thrilling. Carolyn says, "Many of those original snowdrops would bloom in February, so that’s when spring really began for me. When they flowered, I would put on my warmest set of work clothes, head out to the garden, and leave the winter doldrums behind."

Photograph by Carolyn Walker

Carolyn's interest in gardening actually begun much earlier.

"It was my roommate who really got me started–with houseplants–during our sophomore year in college," Carolyn tells me," As soon as I graduated, I branched out into vegetable gardening, which I pursued avidly for the next decade—I once grew 20 kinds of peppers.  Meanwhile, I went to law school and became an international corporate tax lawyer with weekends in the garden. In 1992, I decided I had had enough of the corporate world and quit.  When considering my next career, a friend suggested that I grow and sell plants. The rest is history."

Carolyn's fascination with snowdrops began to develop as her knowledge of gardening expanded.

"My snowdrop obsession began when I started reading old Heronswood catalogues. Dan Hinkley was a master at plant descriptions, and I ordered a few new cultivars each year. My fate as a galanthophile (British term for gardeners obsessed with snowdrops) was sealed when I visited Charles Cresson’s garden in Swarthmore Pennsylvania. Charles helped me see and appreciate the finest distinctions in snowdrops."

These days Carolyn not only collects snowdrops–she sells them too. The retail plant nursery Carolyn opened in 1992 specializes in plants for shade and offers an online catalogue of snowdrop plants (not bulbs) each spring. A few new varieties are added each year.

The tiny nodding flowers of Galanthus nivalis have white outer segments and 
green tips on the inner segments.

Growing your own Snowdrops

If you don't already have snowdrops in your garden, Carolyn recommends starting out with the common snowdrop Galanthus nivalis. They are readily available and easy to grow in almost any soil.
If you have already grown Galanthus nivalis, you may want to expand your collection to include some of the over 2,500 named cultivars available.
Curious to learn more about growing snowdrops, I asked Carolyn a series of questions:

Q: What growing conditions favour snowdrops best?

The most common species and their cultivars (G. nivalis, G. plicatus, G. elwesii, G woronowii, G. reginae-olgae, and G. gracilis) like partial shade or deciduous shade (not under evergreens– snowdrops like to take advantage of spring sunshine before deciduous trees leaf-out). They require well-drained soil that is rich in organic matter.
G. nivalis will grow just about anywhere and is happy in both moist and average soil. G. reginae-olgae likes a sunnier location and G. elwesii grows best in more southern garden zones 5 to 6 and warmer.

Q: Many gardeners will be surprised to learn that there are snowdrops that bloom as early as the fall. How has your collection of snowdrops extended the period of bloom in your garden?

Galanthus reginae-olgae starts blooming in my garden in early to mid-October and lasts for about four weeks. Just as it goes by, the first flowers of Galanthus elwesii var. monostichus 'Potter's Prelude' appear and continue through December. The giant snowdrop G. elwesii begins flowering in late January and February before the common snowdrop, G. nivalis, takes over for late February and March. The double 'Flore Pleno' and G. woronowii will provide flowers from late March into April depending on the weather.

Galanthus reginae-olgae. Photograph by Carolyn Walker.

Galanthus elwesii var. monostichus 'Potter's Prelude'
Photograph by Carolyn Walker

Q: Snowdrops flower at a time when there isn't a whole lot going on. That makes it easy to focus in on and appreciate the subtle distinctions in their flowers and foliage. Tell me a little about some of these unique and interesting characteristics.

'Ballerina'. Photograph by Carolyn Walker

I admire ‘Kite’ with its incredibly long outer segments (petals) and ‘Diggory’ for its plump and quilted flowers. Double snowdrops are fascinating as well. I particularly cherish ‘Ballerina’ for its elegance, while I laugh every time I pass by ‘Blewbury Tart’ having a bad hair day.

‘Lady Elphinstone’. Photograph by Carolyn Walker

Snowdrops with yellow inner marks and yellow ovaries (the cap on top of the flower) stand out as being quite distinct. I treasure my ‘Primrose Warburg’ and double yellow ‘Lady Elphinstone’. ‘E.A. Bowles’ is a poculiform snowdrop with inner and outer segments that are equal in size and pure white. 

Trym’ Photograph by Carolyn Walker

Another ornamental characteristic I’d like to mention is found in inverse poculiform snowdrops. In these flowers, the outer segments are shaped and marked like the inner segments. ‘Trym’ is the most famous example.  

‘Anglesey Orange Tip’. Photograph by Carolyn Walker

Finally, orange flushed snowdrops like ‘Anglesey Orange Tip’ is quite unique and interesting.

Q: Readers may be surprised to learn that there are actually thousands of named snowdrop cultivars. Do you have a few favourites?

I have picked six that I think any gardener would want to add to their garden after planting the most available species, G. nivalis, G. elwesii, and G. woronowii.  They are:

S. Arnott–considered to be the snowdrop that English gardeners would take to a desert island if they could have just one
Opheliaa Greatorex double that is easy to grow and a classic
Lady Beatrix Stanley–another classic double (doubles are my customer's favourites of the moderately priced cultivars)
Blewbury Tart–exotic with lots of green on the outside (multiplies prolifically)
Potter’s Prelude–fall-blooming
Primrose Warburg–yellow (which is all the rage right now)

Galanthus 'Blewbury Tart'. Photograph by Carolyn Walker

Galanthus 'Primrose Warburg'. Photograph by Carolyn Walker

Q: What is the best way to purchase snowdrops?

Like daffodils, snowdrops can be purchased as dried bulbs. If you are purchasing common snowdrops, inexpensive dried bulbs are fine, but for more rare and expensive varieties, dried bulbs are not your best option. Snowdrops do not like to be dried, so even for Galanthus nivalis there will be a high mortality rate. Plants that do survive may never perform well. It's always best to start with plants when available.

Occasionally snowdrops that have bloomed and gone dormant are lifted and sold in late summer.  Generally, this method is pretty reliable, but if the following winter is unusually harsh, bulbs lifted in summer are often not as hardy as spring-planted ones.

The best way to purchase snowdrops is "in the green" or as a plant blooming in spring. This assures that you have received the correct variety and allows you to be confident the plant is healthy. Acquiring blooming snowdrops also gives the plant plenty of time to get established before winter arrives.

A classic double 'Lady Beatrix Stanley'. Photograph by Carolyn Walker

Q: How and when should you divide Snowdrops?

Snowdrops don't need to be divided unless they become crowded and stop producing flowers, but dividing clumps regularly will greatly increase the number of snowdrops you have in the garden.
Lift them as soon as they have finished flowering. Divide and replant them spreading out the bulbs.

Q: Do you have any suggestions for companion plants?

My favourites are Italian arum, hardy cyclamen, winter aconite, snow crocus, Siberian and Tubergen squill, silver-leafed lamium, heucheras, hellebores, camellias and evergreen ferns.

Top row left to right: lamium, Siberian squill, rose-colored hellebore. Bottom row left to right: Burgundy-colored hellebore, winter aconite and heuchera.

Snowdrops and cyclamen in Colesbourne Park. Photograph by Carolyn Walker

Further reading:

The Plant Lover's Guide to Snowdrops by Naomi Slade is the best reference for gardeners just getting started with snowdrops. (RHS Plant Lover's Guide Series)

A Gardener's Guide to Snowdrops by Freda Cox (2013). Carolyn describes it as, "...a great reference with hand-drawn illustrations of 750 snowdrops."

Snowdrops by Gunter Waldorf with 300 photos.

Snowdrops: A Monograph of Cultivated Galanthus by Matt Bishop, Aaron Davis and Jon Grimshaw (Griffin Press 2006) Carolyn describes this book as the "British snowdrop bible". Unfortunately, it is out of print, but you may be able to find a copy in a secondhand bookstore.

Sources for Snowdrops:

American Sources:
• Carolyn's Shade Gardens
 Brent and Becky's Bulbs
 Far Reaches Farm
• Temple Nursery

Canadian Sources (Sadly only single and double Snowdrops are available here in Canada):
• Botanus
• Breck's Bulbs
• Vesseys

More Information and Links:

Carolyn's Shade Gardens is a retail nursery in Bryn Mawr, PA. specializing in unusual perennials for shade. The nursery includes a two-acre ornamental garden which allows visitors a chance to see the plants in a variety of settings.
Most of the plants are sold at a series of spring open houses. Many of them are grown by Carolyn herself without the use of fertilizers and sprays (except for deer). Perennials include a good selection of hellebores, pulmonarias, hosta, ferns, primroses, phlox, hardy geranium, unusual bulbs and of course, snowdrops.
The only plants the nursery ships are snowdrops and miniature hosta. (Please note: Plants can be shipped within the USA only. Sadly, Carolyn cannot ship plants to Canada.)

To be added to the email notification list for the 2020 Snowdrop Catalogue, please email Carolyn at

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  1. Thanks for the giveaway! This is such a great post - I love spring bulbs and snowdrops are always so lovely.

    1. I'd be happy to enter you in the latest book draw Anne.

  2. Thanks for a chance to win. Im from the niagara region in ontario. We havent had much snow this year but have been hit hard over this weekend. Im dreaming of all the flowers in spring. I cant wait to get out in the garden again. I love your blog, it has taught me so much. Thank you

    1. I am just north of you Miss Dar. It's super cold in Ontario at the moment, isn't it? I am impatiently counting the days until to spring as well. I'll be sure to enter you in the latest book draw. Good luck!

  3. Wow - I have never grown these, but these look wonderful.

    1. I don't think the disappoint. Snowdrops are such a welcome sign that spring is on its way. I'd be happy to enter you in the latest book draw. Best of luck!

  4. I cannot grow snowdrops where I live only summer snowflakes. But I just adore them anyway! Love that there are some many different ones.

  5. I planted up some summer snowflakes myself in the fall. I am having an issue with voles, so have my fingers crossed they don't get eaten over the winter. Check my resource list for places to get snowdrops. You should be able to mail order some from a number of potential sources. I'll enter your name in the draw. Good luck!

  6. Always so much good information in your blog. Can hardly wait for spring and all the lovely spring flowers. Would love to win the book.

    1. I'm impatient for spring as well. I'll add your name into the draw Betty.

  7. I have just recently discovered your blog and thoroughly enjoyed spending time scrolling back through your posts. Your garden and the gardens you have shared are all so beautiful. It was nice to go on these virtual garden tours while waiting for gardening season to begin. I have never grown snowdrops and had no idea there were so many different varieties. I think it would be wonderful to see these little signs of spring popping up right about now. Thank you for all of the great information.

  8. I'm glad your enjoying my archive of gardens. It's always nice to get such positive feedback. I'll add your name to the draw.

  9. My tiny patch of snowdrops is showing buds, almost ready to open. I visit daily to remind myself that winter doesn't last forever. Now I'm planning to add a few of those gorgeous doubles, maybe new! Thanks!

    1. Glad you found some inspiration in the blog post Kay. I'll add your name into the book draw.

  10. I look forward to seeing these bloom every year.
    Theresa N
    weceno at yahoo dot com

  11. You have inspired me to order some of the Snow drops! They are so pretty and would be so welcome at this time of year. I grew up in PA and am currently in MA, so the climates are similar. I would love to have this book. I am an avid gardener and can't get enough plants!!! I guess I am really hooked and have been for 40+ years but these are new to me... thank you for being so generous!


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