Alpine Garden Society

Ulster Group

  Plant of the Month, February 2006

Christmas and New Year Snowdrops  

By Mark Smyth

We all know the snowdrop but to most people they bloom from the end of January and have a peak in mid to late February. What most people don’t realise is snowdrops can be in bloom in the garden for 6 months of the year starting in October and ending in early April.

This article will focus on three snowdrops which will bring the season back to mid December to early January. All three are different so once in the garden there will be no problem telling them apart. They are ‘Castlegar’, elwesii ‘Haydn’ and plicatus subsp. byzantinus ‘Three Ships’.

In my garden ‘Three Ships’ is usually above ground by late November. The flowers open depending on weather conditions from mid to late December. It is named after the carol “I saw three ships come sailing in on Christmas Day in the morning”. Plicate snowdrops have the edges of their leaves turned in towards the mid rib. Once fully developed they have quite broad leaves with the folds now folded out. The plants were discovered in 1984 by John Morley of North Green Snowdrops. They were growing under an ancient Cork Oak in Henham Park Suffolk. It was 13 years before it was available to buy for the first time. Plicate snowdrops have two forms. Those with a single inner marking are plicatus subsp. plicatus. Flowers with two markings either separate, joined or covering the inner petal are plicatus subsp. byzantinus
Flowering with or soon after ‘Three Ships’ is ‘Castlegar’ which is one of only a few Irish snowdrops. It’s a lovely small but elegant ‘drop standing about six inches high. Due to its early flowering time Matt Bishop, who co wrote the book “Snowdrops”, suggests it may have Galanthus reginae-olgae in it’s genes. This snowdrop flowers during October and November. ‘Castlegar’ was found in a copse in Co. Galway and shown to Dr. Lamb.
The last snowdrop of this early group is elwesii ‘J. Haydn’. G. elwesii was once known as the giant snowdrop but many new cultivars now tower above them e.g. nivalis x plicatus ‘Marks Tall’ which stands at 14 inches. G. elwesii and its hybrids emerge from below ground with one leaf wrapped inside the other. It is not until the leaves are c3 inches tall do they separate. The outer leaf remains wrapped around the other, at the base, throughout the growing season. ‘J. Haydn’ is in flower for the New Year sometimes before. The inner mark is an elongated inverted heart. Galanthus elwesii is found in two forms. Those with one inner marking are elwesii var monostictus. Flowers with two markings separate, joined and covering the inner petal are elwesii var elwesii.