January plant of the month

Heralding the New Year, this cheery bulb lights up the garden

common snowdropExquisitely intricate and beautifully refined, snowdrops have delightful detail to be admired at close quarters. They are also fantastic viewed as a carpet of colour. 

Snowdrops are a diverse group. In total, there are 19 species and a whopping 1500 cultivars have been recorded. Each cultivar has subtle defining characteristics, some only discernable to the expert eye, making some bulbs incredibly collectable. 

The common snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis, is the type most frequently at RHS Garden Harlow Carr where it has been extensively planted throughout the woodland. There are great swathes along the main ride, and large established clumps along the woodland edge framing the Streamside as well as complementing the Doric columns in the heart of the woodland.

G. nivalis is in flower from late winter until mid-spring. It’s one of the first bulbs to emerge in January and no other bulb celebrates the New Year better. Each bulb produces a graceful, arching pendant bloom. The flower is white and has a pear shape made up of three small inner petals, terminating with a green mark and three larger unmarked outer spreading petals (tepals). Framing each flower is a cluster of neat, mid-green strap-shaped leaves. The flowers are said to be honey scented. Galanthus nivalis is the best snowdrop for naturalising; it bulks up readily and is inexpensive to buy.

Where to grow snowdrops

A snowdrop’s leaves quickly die away meaning no cutting back is required after flowering. Snowdrops are very hardy, and tolerant of most soil conditions but not waterlogged ones, and are happy in full sun or shade. They dislike very hot, dry conditions and shallow soils, tending to prefer cooler, damper, north-facing situations. Snowdrops appear to prefer to grow above calcareous rocks and limestone. They like humus-rich, fertile soil with a high proportion of organic matter, and shady, damp conditions. G. nivalis does well beneath deciduous trees and grows very well on north-facing slopes.

In the wild snowdrops grow from Europe to Iran, occurring mainly in upland woodland and also across rocky sites. Their natural habitat is in woodland, meadows and rocky crevices where they can withstand extremely cold temperatures. 

Dividing clumps every 3 to 4 years prevents the bulbs from becoming too congested. See more advice on how to grow snowdrops.

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