More on snowdrops

Jim McKenney
Mon, 19 Jan 2004 08:54:38 PST
John Lonsdale's remarks about snowdrop identity gave me a good laugh. He's
so right about this; and it's just as true for lilies, daylilies,
daffodils, bearded iris, gladiolus or any other group where everyone with a
bit of the huckster spirit has jumped into the hybridizing fray. It seems
to me that contemporary horticulture suffers from a severe case of cultivar
pollution. And unless I'm badly mistaken, there are a lot of self-styled
emperors out there making pronouncements while the rest of us laugh about
their new clothes. 

I've grown snowdrops all my gardening life. For years the only ones I had
were Galanthus nivalis and G. elwesii. The Galanthus nivalis came in two
forms: one was short with narrow leaves and small flowers; the other was
taller, with broader leaves and larger, later flowers. This simple
observation was my introduction to the nebulous world of snowdrop identity.
My curiosity piqued, I began to collect snowdrops in a small way and before
long had a dozen nominally different forms. Later I surveyed the catalogs
available to me and found that several dozen cultivars were available.
Feeling rather puny about my mere dozen forms, I decided to take snowdrops
more seriously. A bit later, a guest speaker at a rock garden meeting
blithely informed us that he has about 90-100 different snowdrops in his
garden. Then I found a current British garden magazine with an article on
snowdrops. I was only a bit dismayed when I read that there were over 300
named snowdrops. I'm not a bit surprised that, as John Lonsdale's says,
there are now over 700. 

Fortunately for me, I saw the edge of the chasm approaching. I sat myself
down and had a good talk with myself about the folly of collecting. And I
reminded myself how silly those people look whose only claim to notice in
life is that they have some rare plant or other. And I asked myself a
simple question: what is it about snowdrops (and you can substitute any
other plant group name here) that really appeals to you? Isn't it enough to
have the essential snowdrop qualities?  One of the essential qualities of
snowdrops is simplicity. And let's face it: there really isn't that much
material in a snowdrop on which to elaborate variation. 

As a result, I'm back to the basics with snowdrops; and I'm not likely to
go much further. I have early forms, late forms, singles, doubles, talls,
shorts, narrow leaves, wide leaves. No, I'm not going to name the
cultivars. But it's a range of snowdrops which gives me a well rounded
snowdrop experience each year. I've never had a garden visitor who could
name all of them, yet someone in the throes of advanced galanthomania would
find nothing here of great interest. 

Now on to something different, but still on a Galanthus theme. Years ago I
received bulbs under the name Galanthus caucasicus. They produce the
largest leaves of any snowdrop I know - sometimes I've mistaken the foliage
for that of one of the big ornamental Allium. The stock I have is very
variable in flower form: some have small flowers (and they look smaller
than they really are due to the robust size of the plant). Some have
flowers with long drooping petals - these are among the largest snowdrop
flowers I've ever seen. One of these I call Basset Hound and the other I
call Propellers (no, this is not my contribution to the 700+: these are not
going anywhere). The range of flower forms and sizes  in this acquisition
varies so much that I've long been suspicious of the name. And now once
again I'm hearing someone refer to Galanthus caucasicus with a caveat, as
if the genuine article is unlikely. 

So, group members, what should the real Galanthus caucasicus look like? 

Jim McKenney
Montgomery County, Maryland, USA, zone 7, where Galanthus elwesii,
Hamamelis x intermedia Pallida and Chimonanthus praecox are all trying to

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