Is a super snowdrop display on the way?

08 February 2011

The recent freezing temperatures may have caused chaos for commuters but it could mean we are due for a mass flowering of snowdrops.

Snowdrop Galanthus 'South Hayes' at Brandy Mount in Hampshire

Snowdrop Galanthus 'South Hayes' at Brandy Mount in Hampshire

The cold winter weather has delayed the appearance of early flowering snowdrops, making them likely to appear with the later flowering ones, any time now.

‘Some snowdrops flower in late autumn,’ says Natural History Museum botanist Fred Rumsey. ‘It’s been so cold it seems to be quite a late season and most snowdrops are only just starting to flower.’

The common snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis, with its narrow leaves, is the one you are most likely to see in parks and woods around the UK. G nivalis is not native but looks wild, having been introduced many centuries ago. Soldiers returning from the Crimean wars brought back a bigger snowdrop, G. plicatus, which bred with the common snowdrop to give most of the finest plants seen in UK gardens.

Worldwide, there are 19 snowdrop species in the genus Galanthus. They have medicinal properties, for example they contain an alkaloid, galanthamine, that is used in the management of Alzheimer’s disease in some countries.

Snowdrop  Galanthus hippolyta is a hybrid between G. plicatus and G. nivalis 'flore pleno'.

Snowdrop  Galanthus hippolyta is a hybrid between G. plicatus and G. nivalis 'flore pleno'.

In comparison, there are hundreds of snowdrop varieties. They are very popular with gardeners and horticulturalists, who breed them to produce different forms. Many are highly prized.

The £357 bulb

In the last few weeks a single snowdrop bulb sold for £357 on the online auction site eBay. It was a new variety, G. plicatus ‘EA Bowles’, which has  an unusual flower. Whereas most snowdrops have 3 inner green-tipped petals surrounded by 3 bigger white petals, G. plicatus ‘EA Bowles’ has 6 perfect large white petals. Similar ‘poculiform’ types exist of the smaller common snowdrop but this is the first known example of the bigger G. plicatus.

One flower per bulb

You will generally only get one flower from a single bulb, as Rumsey explains. ‘Maybe in a year or two you would get a couple of bulbs with each flower through natural division. Or, if you were brave enough to twin-scale the bulb, which is where you chop it into smaller parts, you may get 5 or 6 smaller plants the following year.’

Collecting snowdrops
Snowdrop variety Galanthus wasp, named so because of narrow wing-like outer petals and striped body.

Snowdrop variety Galanthus wasp, named so because of the narrow wing-like outer petals and the striped appearance of the body. It was first found in a historical snowdrop growers garden in 1995.

There is certainly an increased passion for collecting snowdrops and collectors are known as Galanthophiles. ‘It seems that over the last few years the snowdrop collecting bug has really taken off,’ says Rumsey. ‘As well as the £357 bulb, in the last few weeks at least 9 bulbs have sold on eBay for over £100 per bulb.’

Unusual green marks

Collectors are looking for snowdrop plants that may be particularly nice or are unusual in some way. Often they are selected for differences in the green marks on the inner part of the petals. These are usually V or U-shaped but many have interesting patterns, looking like faces, scissors, and chromosomes!

Cultivars

These differences occur naturally. But most often the plants have been bred and then vegetatively propagated to keep those characteristics, and these are called cultivars.

Raising cultivars can be tricky and take time as some species are more difficult to grow than others. However, most snowdrops are quite easy to grow. 

Snowdrop variety Galanthus x allenii is possibly a wild hybrid

Snowdrop Galanthus x allenii is possibly a wild hybrid from the Caucasus. It was found in Shepton Mallet, the Somerset garden of James Allen (hence the name), in Victorian times and has been cultivated ever since.

High price bulbs

So why do some snowdrop bulbs get such high prices? Rumsey says the reason is probably market led. 

‘The oddest forms and the most attractive plants generate the most interest. Demand outstrips supply so prices can rise, and now that we have the internet, which is the only way for most people to buy these, a bidding frenzy can drive the price up.’

Snowdrop conservation

All snowdrops are included in the CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species) Appendix II. They are not threatened with extinction, but the trade in them is monitored to ensure wild populations are not endangered. 

In most countries it is illegal to collect wild snowdrops and one of their main threats is habitat destruction. There are considerable concerns that our demand for bulbs may threaten wild populations as hundreds of thousands of bulbs are traded each spring.

Find out more about snowdrops at the Museum

Fred Rumsey has created a small display of different snowdrops at the Museum’s Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity, for people who want to know more about identifying them. And people can post questions to the ID forum, which has expert replies and information about identifying snowdrops.

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Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity 
Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity

Discover the Centre for UK Biodiversity. It offers a drop-in identification service,  research facilities, and online nature resources. Watch a video and meet the team.

Find out about the Centre for UK Biodiversity

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