Ian Gillam, one of UBC Botanical Garden’s Friends of the Garden, is the author of today’s entry, as well as the photographer. Thank you Ian!
Snowdrops (Galanthus) are small bulbous plants. They produce pairs of mostly strap-shaped leaves and a single, hanging flower on a short scape. All of the 19 species currently recognized have white flowers (Galanthus means “milk flower”) with green markings. Details of these markings, whether the leaves are green, glaucous or glaucescent and whether they lie flat against each other at their base or are folded together at the margins help to differentiate species found in different habitats. They occur from western Europe into the westernmost side of Asia.
In suitable areas, in the wild or in gardens, snowdrops, notably the common Galanthus nivalis, multiply steadily. Open deciduous woodland in mid-northern Europe can become carpeted with plants, a spectacle in earliest springtime. Among such large populations, a careful observer can sometimes find variants in markings, in size and shape of flower and in season of bloom. These variants have been collected over a considerable period of time by enthusiasts (galanthophiles). Where several species are in cultivation the chances of variation are increased by hybridization and many named cultivars are presumed to be of hybrid origin. A very few show markings in yellow rather than green and also have yellow ovaries. These have proven demanding to grow but newer examples are promised to be more vigorous, though still rare.
Snowdrops bloom over a long period and individual flowers last a long time in the garden, in part directly due to the cold conditions at blooming time but no doubt due also to the paucity of pollinating insects and the unfavorable weather for their activity.
Not all snowdrops bloom in late winter or early spring. Today’s subject is Galanthus reginae-olgae, whose flowers open in late October or early November before the leaves are fully emerged. It is native to Sicily, former Yugoslavia and to Greece where it was named for that country’s Queen Olga (1851-1926), grand-daughter, cousin and niece of Russian Tsars. She married the second King of modern Greece. Among their grandchildren is Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh.
The queen’s snowdrop has alternated between being considered a subspecies of the common snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis, and being a species in its own right. It is an interesting plant, blooming as it does at an unexpected time. It can be grown outdoors in Vancouver but is safer grown under protection from our wet winters, at least until more plants are available. Forms distinguished as Galanthus reginae-olgae subsp. vernalis delay their blooming until spring and are thus more similar to Galanthus nivalis.
Another species, differing in its narrow, greener leaves, also blooms in late autumn. This is Galanthus peshmenii, native to Turkey. Its bulbs, flowers and leaves are slightly smaller.