Snowdrops help me put winter in perspective

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  • Snowdrop flowers blooming in winter Muzka—Getty Images/iStockphoto

For the Gazette
Published: 10/5/2018 10:07:59 AM

As I write this, there are still plenty of flowers in the garden and green leaves on the trees. But fall is definitely in the air, a bittersweet time for those of us who dread the winter that’s not far behind. Thinking ahead to next spring’s flowering bulbs helps me put winter in perspective. A season to let things sleep underground. A season to marvel, and shiver, at meteorological extremes. A season that might seem endless but will, in fact, draw to a close as snowdrops (Galanthus) emerge.

Although these first hardy souls are less showy than fancy fire-engine red Dutch tulips or five-inch wide narcissi blossoms that come later, they are modest miracles that never let us down, even through the snow and ice of late February. The drooping, bell-shaped flowers are subtle; they invite you to come close so you can appreciate their fragile fortitude.

The original owner of our house was a member of the Garden Club of Amherst. She planted literally thousands of spring-blooming bulbs back in the early 1960s. Many of these have ceased to be, but brave platoons of snowdrops still pop up in unexpected places, becoming more numerous every year. Galanthus is a small genus consisting of approximately 20 species native to Europe and the Middle East. They range in height from three to eight inches. Nivalis is the most common species and appears to be what blooms at our house. But apart from these “garden variety” snowdrops, there are others to choose from, including some with double blossoms such as ‘Hippolyta,’ and others with green-tipped petals, such as ‘Viridi-apice.’

Snowdrops aren’t hugely celebrated in this country, but in Great Britain there are plant nurseries, garden clubs and societies devoted exclusively to them. Galanthophiles get together every spring in gardens throughout the U.K. to ooh and aah over rare varieties. There are even fierce disputes about which flowers can be gathered legally in the wild.

If you suspect you might have galanthophilic tendencies, check out the website for Carolyn’s Shade Garden

( , a plant nursery in Bryn Mawr, PA. She collects many varieties of snowdrops and sells them online. She has also written poignantly about her own evolving obsession with them.

If you want a bit of early season color, a perfect companion for snowdrops is the snow crocus. There are several varieties of these early crocuses; they are sometimes called “species crocus.” They have smaller corms and smaller but more abundant flowers than the larger Dutch crocus (Crocus Vernus) that bloom a couple of weeks later. One species is Crocus chrysanthus, native to Turkey and the Balkans, that has egg-yolk yellow blossoms (chrysanthus means golden flowers). Another species, Crocus biflorus or silver crocus, native to southeastern Europe and southwestern Asia, comes in a range of shades from lavender to white, sometimes with purple striations on the petals’ exteriors.

Fortunately for those of us who hunger for the first flowers of spring, an extensive snow-crocus breeding program has resulted in a wide range of solid and blended colors, all of which go nicely with the translucent white of the snowdrop. These include ‘Cream Beauty’ and ‘Goldilocks’ at golden end of the spectrum. At the cooler end of the spectrum, ‘Blue Pearl’ and ‘Blue Peter’ are spin-offs of the Biflorus species. ‘Ard Schenk’ is white with a bronze center; ‘Saturnus’ is yellow inside with a dark purple exterior. Several of these, including ‘Blue Pearl,’ have earned the Royal Horticultural Society's Award of Garden Merit.

There are several other worthy early bloomers to consider, including anemone (windflower), frittilaria and chionodoxa, also known as “glory of the snow.” But to me, nothing says “hold on, spring is coming!” as boldly as snowdrops. If you haven’t experienced the delight of snowdrops, now’s the time to plant them. The bulbs do best in deciduous shade or semi-shady places in rich, woodsy soil. They naturalize easily and are not popular snack food for deer or rodents.

Major bulb suppliers — including White Flower Farm, Brent and Becky’s and John Scheepers — offer many of these early beauties. But don’t wait too long; they sell out quickly.

Mickey Rathbun, an Amherst-based lawyer turned journalist, has written the Get Growing column since 2016.

Upcoming garden events 

Bulbs for a cause

Speaking of ordering bulbs, you can enhance your spring garden and support Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge at the same time by placing an online order for bulbs with Brent and Becky’s Bulbs. To participate, visit, enter BBG as your organization to support, and shop for bulbs, books, supplements, tools and gift certificates. BBG will receive 25% of all sales, which will directly support its annual Bulb Show in March.

Save the date: Kestrel Trust’s 5K for farmland

The fun 5K run and 2-mile walk will take place Oct. 21 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. It starts and ends on the historic West Street Common in Hadley, following a route through the scenic farmlands of the Great Meadow and the Connecticut River. After the race, there will be a festival on the Hadley Common with unique local food and products at a special Farmers’ Market, free local beer for runners 21 and over, great live music and nature and animal exhibits.

All pre-registered participants will receive a limited-edition 5K for Farmland pint glass. And all runners and walkers will automatically be entered in a drawing for wonderful, locally produced prizes.

Day-of registration begins at 9 a.m. The race and walk begin at 11 a.m.

Make an even bigger impact on Valley you love: Collect pledges from friends and family to support Kestrel Land Trust’s work to save land for local food, wildlife, and recreation. The top three individuals who collect the most pledges over $200 will receive a Northampton Chamber of Commerce gift card that’s good at restaurants, shops, and service providers throughout the city.

All things apple

On Oct. 11-14, Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston will host the Garden Club Federation of Massachusetts’s show, “An American Icon: The Apple.” The event will feature an array of displays including horticulture exhibitions and daring floral designs created by members of the GCFM. In keeping with Tower Hill’s historic apple orchard, each design will celebrate the theme of apples. Cost is included with admission to Tower Hill.

Science Saturday at Hitchcock Center

This family-friendly program on Oct. 13 from 10 to 11 a.m. will look at fall colors and why they happen. This free program is aimed at kids 3-8, accompanied by their parents. For more information, go to Groups of six or more should call ahead.


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