The Snowdrop

An immersive exploration of the science, folklore, and horticulture of this first sign of spring.

By Cambridge University Botanic Garden

Galanthus plicatus ‘Wendy’s Gold’ (2020-02-19) by Kate Dawson Cambridge University Botanic Garden

A Galanthophile is an enthusiastic collector and identifier of snowdrop (Galanthus) species, hybrids and cultivars. By exploring the snowdrop collection at Cambridge University Botanic Garden, perhaps we can convince you to become a Galanthophile today?

Galanthus plicatus subsp. plicatus (2019-02-14) by Kate Dawson Cambridge University Botanic Garden

How many different species of Snowdrops are there?

There are about 20 known species of snowdrop, native to Europe and the Middle East in the Amaryllis plant family. Probably the most common species are Galanthus nivalis, G. elwesii and G. plicatus. Many hybrid and cultivated snowdrops have arisen from just these three species.

Galanthus 'Magnet' (2018-02-14) by Helen Needham Cambridge University Botanic Garden

How can you tell the different snowdrops apart?

The best way to tell the three species apart is to examine the leaf. G. elwesii has a rounded leaf base, while G. plicatus leaves have a folded lip along the edge. The leaves of G. nivalis are pressed flat at the base. 

Galanthus (2017-12-20) by Howard Rice Cambridge University Botanic Garden

Snowdrops at CUBG

There are 39 different species, varieties, cultivars and hybrids of snowdrop (Galanthus) to see here from early spring. Most are planted outside permanently, but some are also displayed on rotation within the Mountains House in our Glasshouse Range.

Galanthus plicatus ‘Wendy’s Gold’ (2020-02-19) by Kate Dawson Cambridge University Botanic Garden

The stories behind the names

A clump of snowdrops with yellow colouring was found in the early 1970s at Wandlebury, a local nature reserve. It was named ‘Wendy’s Gold’, after the finder's wife. Most of the bulbs were lost to disease. Luckily, some bulbs were given to us, and all stock today came from these.

Despite looking rather delicate, snowdrops have some fascinating adaptations to the cold, and are even being investigated as a source of a potential treatment for Alzheimer's disease. Snowdrop Science is awesome.

Galanthus elwesii var. elwesii (2020-01-29) by Kate Dawson Cambridge University Botanic Garden

Snowdrop Science

In cold spells you will often see snowdrops collapse to the ground, only to resurrect themselves once the temperature rises. Snowdrops, have special ‘anti-freeze’ proteins that help inhibit ice crystals formation, protecting the plant cells from damage. 

Galanthus nivalis ‘Sandersii’ (2019-01-31) by Kate Dawson Cambridge University Botanic Garden

Snowdrop Science

The outer segments of snowdrop petals move in response to changes in temperature. When air temperatures are above 10°C, pollinating insects such as bees are likely to be flying, and the petals move upwards and outwards, opening the flower for them. 

Galanthus (2016-02-22) by Howard Rice Cambridge University Botanic Garden

Flowering earlier every year

Studying the timing of life events of plants helps us understand their response to climate change. The average flowering date of the common snowdrop has moved from around the end of February in the 1950s to early January in the 1990s.

If you've been inspired to grow some snowdrops in your own garden, its pretty easy to do. Come and visit us in the spring to fully appreciate the impact large scale plantings can have at this otherwise rather grey and cold time of year in Cambridge.

Galanthus nivalis ‘Scharlockii’ (2019-01-07) by Howard Rice Cambridge University Botanic Garden

Growing Snowdrops

Tough little plants which are relatively easy to grow. As woodland plants, they should be planted where they will get good light early in the year in well drained rich soil. Regular lifting and dividing once they have finished flowering is the easiest way to propagate them.

Snowdrops have inspired many artists and poets. After a quick foray into snowdrops in religion and culture, finally, indulge yourself in a cup of tea, while you listen to us read you a particularly lovely snowdrop poem by Alice Oswald.

Snowdrop poetry

Snowdrops have long inspired poets – from William Wordsworth to Ted Hughes. This beautiful poem by Alice Oswald is a fine example. 

Galanthus (2010-02-24) by Howard Rice Cambridge University Botanic Garden

Snowdrops in religion and culture

Snowdrops can symbolise chastity, consolation, death, friendship in adversity, hope and purity. Christians dedicated them to the Virgin Mary, scattering the flowers on altars on Candlemas Day (2 February) and bringing bunches into churches as symbols of purity. 

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