The Milk Flowers of Spring, AKA Snowdrops!

Galanthus_nivalis_close-up_aka We’ve seen the first hard frost and the hardiest of the nursery stock has finally giving up the ghost for the season.  For me this is both a peaceful time of year and the time I start getting antsy.  The buzz, buzz, buzz, of plant growth and insect activity is quiet.  Below the soil the plants are still perking away slowly, getting ready for spring.  But I can’t SEE them.  By late December or January I’m rereading garden magazines and my seed catalogs are more thumbed over than a 14 year old boys secret Playboy stash. Thank goodness for snowdrops (Galanthus spp.).

There are 75 species of snowdrops, a member of the amaryllis family (Amaryllidaceous), which are native to Europe and Southwest Asia.  Galanthus nivalis, the common snowdrop, is probably the easiest to find.  There is some variation in height between species but general they are low to the ground at 3-4” high and all of them produce milk white bell flowers.  Coincidently, the name “Galanthus” means milk flower.  Where they differ are in the tiny green markings on the inner petals, an important distinction for snowdrop aficionados.  When the plant is sun warmed it produces a very light scent.  When all else is bare and frosty, looking at a swath of nodding white bells is just the promise of spring that I need.

One of the first plants to pop their heads up, they can emerge from late December to March, depending on the area, conditions and species.  They are an easy plant to grow and are spectacular when planted in drifts for a natural look in a woodland setting.  To bloom, the winters must get down to at least 20 degrees F, but no colder than 30 degrees F below zero, or zones 3-8.  They will tolerate exposed sites and wind, dry or moist shade, clay soil (which I personally adore about them) and are deer resistant (another plus).  Bulbs can be lifted and divided the prior spring to expand your snowdrop field, or they can be planted as dry bulbs in the fall. Squirrels may be an issue with the dried bulbs. They can also be propagated by chipping or twin scaling.  Plant in well drained soil 3-4” deep and 2-3” apart if you aren’t using the toss over the shoulder placement technique.  Once they flower ensure they are watered, which is not an issue if you are in the Pacific NW where Mother Nature ensures moist winters.  Let the leaves die back naturally to allow them to continue to fuel the bulb for the following year.  And then sit back and enjoy year after year.


Chicago Botanic Garden. Accessed 11.25.17.

Missouri Botanical Garden. Galanthus nivalis. Accessed 11.25.17.

American Horticultural Society Encyclopedia of Gardening.  Christopher Brickell, ed. (1992). DK: New York.

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