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By Therese Ciesinski, GardenSMART

In the next few weeks, parts of the U.S. will begin seeing some of spring’s first flowers, even though the March equinox is still nine weeks away. Tiny white snowdrops (Galanthus spp.) bloom through freezing temperatures and even snow. These fragile-looking flowering bulbs are actually tough as steel, growing in conditions that would kill other plants.

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Snowdrops have grasslike leaves and pendulous flowers that look like a pure white “drop,” with three green-tinged inner petals hiding inside three longer outer petals. Each bulb produces a single flower, which opens wide on sunny days and stays closed when cloudy. The flowers are fragrant – they’ve been described as honey-scented – and attract pollinators, including bees out foraging on warm days.

There are about 20 species of snowdrops, which are members of the Amaryllis family. They are native to much of Europe, from Spain into Western Asia. Snowdrops spread by seed, so clumps expand over time. They have naturalized in parts of the U.S. In warmer parts of the country, flowers can appear as soon as late January and early February. The further north you go, the later the plants appear, even into April. 

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While there are many different species, cultivars and hybrids, I confess they all look pretty much alike to me. But the differences inspire passion among collectors, who see the subtle differences in flower and form, and pay big money for the rarer ones, such as ‘Sarah Dumont’, a yellow snowdrop. There are both single- and double-flowered snowdrops.

Galanthus nivalis, the common snowdrop, grows six to nine inches tall. ‘Flore Pleno’ is a common double-flowered variety. ‘Sam Arnott’ is a taller hybrid.

Galanthus elwesii, the giant snowdrop, is the earliest bloomer, with larger flowers than G. nivalis. It is taller, growing six inches to twelve inches tall. It is hardy to Zone 4.

Other species include the alpine snowdrop, G. alpinus,and the Crimean snowdrop, G. plicatus.

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The Details

  • Hardy in U.S.D.A. Plant Hardiness Zones 3 to 9. Snowdrops prefer cooler temperatures, so bulbs may be shorter-lived in the warmest zones.
  • Height: 6 to 12 inches tall, depending on species.
  • Soil should be moist, rich, and well-drained.
  • Ideal light conditions are full sun when they first appear, to part shade after flowering. These are the conditions offered when the bulbs are planted under deciduous trees. It’s too dark under evergreens for them to grow well.
  • Deer resistant and tolerant of juglone from black walnut trees.
  • Easy to grow and care for, almost maintenance free. No issues with pests or diseases. It’s pretty much plant ‘em and forget ‘em.
  • After flowering, allow the foliage to yellow and die. It will disappear by late spring.

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In fall, plant bulbs two to three inches deep and about three inches apart. Water them in.

The first year snowdrops may not be overly impressive; they need a year to settle in. Subsequent years should improve their performance.

Snowdrops are quite easy to transplant. They can be moved anytime after they are finished blooming but before mid-autumn so the bulbs have time to settle in to still-warm soil.

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One or two snowdrops look lonely. Plant in clusters of 25 or more bulbs for impact. Companion plants include crocus, glory-of-the-snow (Chionodoxa), and winter aconites (Eranthis).

Given how early they bloom and how small they are, these are bulbs you definitely want to plant where you can readily see them: Along walkways, in rock gardens, woodland gardens, and at the front of the border. Lawns are great because the leaves will likely be gone before the first mow. You can even plant them in containers, alone or with other flowering bulbs.

Snowdrops have great timing, appearing right when we need them, towards the end of winter when it seems the cold, snow, and bad weather will never end. We should all be as resilient as these tiny, cheerful bulbs.

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