There is a term describing someone who collects snowdrops - "Galanthophile" - that conveys the tulip mania-like fervour that these elegant bulbs inspire. Collectors can pay extraordinary prices for a single bulb. In 2009, Horticulture Week reported that a variety named after the plantsman and snowdrop enthusiast EA Bowles reached £150 at the international Galanthus Gala auction.
Though not everyone is prepared to pay such a high price, snowdrops are generally loved. They are a herald of spring, their fresh green leaves and pure white petals emerging from the soil from January onwards to nod gently in woodlands and borders.
Galanthus is a small genus of about 20 species in the daffodil family Amaryllidaceae. Each bulb produces two or three linear leaves and an erect flowering stalk. This is topped by a solitary, pendulous flower with three pure-white outer tepals and three shorter inner tepals usually tipped with green or greenish-yellow markings. The arrangement of the bulbs' emerging leaves (or "vernation") is the main feature used to distinguish between them.
Galanthus nivalis Award of Garden Merit (AGM) is the common snowdrop. It flowers from January to April and can be between 7cm and 15cm tall. G. elwesii is taller, reaching 23cm. It appears early, too, in January or February, and its large white flowers often have significant green marks on their inner tepals. G. plicatus is 30cm tall and flowers between January and March. Its broad leaves fold back at the edges.
G. reginae-olgae, from Greece and Sicily, is similar to G. nivalis but flowers in autumn before the leaves appear. The leaves, which appear in the spring, have a white stripe on their upper side.
There are around 500 named varieties and many cultivars are too similar to be given distinct names. Singleand double-flowered cultivars of G. nivalis are particularly popular, as are cultivars of G. plicatus and G. elwesii. There are also many hybrids between these and other species.
Snowdrops are ideally planted in cool, dappled shade and they like a moist but well-drained, humus-rich soil that does not dry out too much. G. reginae-olgae is a bit more particular and requires more sun and protection from cold winds.
Once thoroughly dried out, snowdrop bulbs will not produce good plants, so customers buying them from the garden centre should be advised to plant the bulbs soon after they get them home. Unusual forms can be found at spring flower shows, particularly those run by the RHS or the Scottish Rock Garden Club.
WHAT THE SPECIALISTS SAY
Lady Christine Skelmersdale, owner, Broadleigh Gardens, Somerset
"Galanthus is a useful and mostly easily grown genus with some excellent cultivars, but probably now over-hyped, with far too many virtually identical varieties. Snowdrops are fully hardy, flowering in midwinter when there is little else out and are a promise of spring.
"'Magnet' is my favourite variety - it is distinct and readily distinguished from any other snowdrop. It has a special poise and character of its own. Most snowdrops will grow well in good soil in part shade but some have differing cultural requirements. For example, G. elwesii prefers dry summer conditions.
"We sell them 'in the green' at the traditional time in spring, after flowering. It is not ideal because it disturbs the root system, but at least you know the variety is correct, which is important when they command such high prices. There is a temptation to buy snowdrops singly but they prefer to be planted in small clumps."
Nigel Rowland, owner, Long Acre Plants, Somerset
"Everyone loves snowdrops - they flower at a time when they can be the focus of attention. There is something similar to tulip mania about having the sought-after varieties. Collectors are very sociable, meeting up to chat about snowdrops and the slowly approaching new growing year.
"My favourite variety is the good old G. 'S. Arnott'. It is substantial, fragrant and a good doer. We do generally sell them 'in the green', but this is more by tradition because it is what the customer is used to and it helps make sure that the right form is being supplied.
"Supplying dormant bulbs would be better because the resulting flowering is likely to be much improved.Fungal diseases can be a problem and narcissus fly can devastate collections. Cultural prevention methods are usually best."
John Winterson, deputy buyer, RHS plant centres
"At Wisley Plant Centre the Galanthus are normally sold from within the alpine A-Z section. But during our Snowdrop Splendour weekend, on 29-30 January, the plants will be moved to a covered sales area where our specialist growers will assist the snowdrop expert Lady Skelmersdale in advising customers. This will provide a slightly warmer environment to shop in at this cold time.
"We will have a good range of rare and unusual varieties along with the usual varieties. These will be sold potted 'in the green' and usually in flower. Some might be displayed in planted containers, making a nice gift when top-dressed with grit. We also sell G. nivalis AGM and G. nivalis f. pleniflorus 'Flore Pleno' AGM in packets of fresh bulbs in August.
"Snowdrops are very popular and they always sell well but it has been very hard to get hold of decent numbers of the unusual varieties. We have worked with our growers over the past few years to build up numbers of the unusual varieties to be able to hold specialist weekends.
"This makes it easier for our customers, who would otherwise have to trawl through the RHS Plant Finder for specialist suppliers and travel to many different nurseries.
"It's fabulous to be able to offer a large range of these cheery little plants that definitely show that the days are drawing out and that spring will soon to be around the corner."
SPECIES AND VARIETIES
G. 'Atkinsii' AGM (H4) is one of the finest snowdrops and has tall, stately flowers. It increases well. Flowers between January and February. Height: 20cm.
G. 'Brenda Troyle' is a very attractive fragrant snowdrop. Its large outer tepals are rounded and blunt with the inner ones heart-shaped and deeply marked. Flowers in February. Height: 20cm.
G. 'Desdemona' is the largest flowered of all the Greatorex doubles (the result of crosses of G. nivalis 'Flore Pleno' with G. plicatus). Increases well. Flowers between February and March. Height: 20cm.
G. 'Dionysus' is one of the Greatorex doubles. Its flowers have fewer inner segments than the other doubles in this group.
G. elwesii has large flowers, with significant green markings on the inner segments, sometimes resembling a fish. Large grey leaves. Flowers between January and February. Height: 18cm.
G. 'Galatea' is a handsome snowdrop with large flowers held at an angle on long, kinked pedicels. Height: 20cm.
G. 'Hippolyta' is a tall, perfectly formed double with very large flowers. The inner segments look as though they have been cut with a knife. Early. Height: 18cm.
G. 'Lady Beatrix Stanley' is an unusual elwesii double. The flowers have two tiny green marks at the base clearly visible through the narrow outer segments. Height: 13cm.
G. 'Magnet' AGM (H4) is a dramatic hybrid with long slender pedicels and rather heavy flowers that move beautifully in the slightest breeze. Flowers in February. Height: 13cm.
G. nivalis AGM (H4) is the common snowdrop. It is excellent for naturalising. Flowers in February. Height: up to 12cm.
G. nivalis f. pleniflorus 'Flore Pleno' AGM (H4) is a double form of the common snowdrop that also naturalises well. Sold in packets of fresh bulbs in the autumn alongside G. nivalis.
G. nivalis f. pleniflorus 'Lady Elphinstone' is a rare, double G.nivalis form with yellow markings. Can tend to go green in some seasons but will revert later. Flowers in February. Height: 13cm.
G. plicatus AGM (H4) is larger than the common snowdrop with broader foliage characterised by the folding-under of the leaf margin when young. Flowers in February. Height: 15cm.
G. plicatus subsp. byzantinus is a form with large flowers, with two separate green markings on the inner segments. Broad grey leaves like the type species, with the characteristic folding-under. Height 18cm.
G. reginae-olgae is an autumn flowering species that produces its strongly scented flowers before the leaves appear. Flowers between October and November. Height: 9cm.
G. 'S. Arnott' AGM (H4) is one of the best and boldest of the snowdrops, with rounded bell-shaped, scented flowers. Flowers in February. Height: 20cm.
G. 'Straffan' is very showy and vigorous, often producing two well-formed, large flowers per bulb. One of the last to flower, between February and March. Height: 13cm.