Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Ice and More Snow (drops)

This is that time of year, not winter, but not yet spring, that tries a gardener's faith. Some afternoons are pleasant, but it still freezes up solid at night, with many grey, chilly days, and always the threat of the return of snow and ice. In the afternoon if the sun is out, the top inch or so of the south-facing pathways thaws, but with dark ice underneath, walking on it is like stepping on a muddy banana peel. This is snowdrop season, so I am reading up on them, and getting down on all fours to look at them very closely. The genus Galanthus (snowdrops) I read is in the amaryllis family, and contains perhaps ten to twenty species (apparently no unanimity on just how many), with many varieties and sub-varieties. The flowers are quite unique yet remarkably similar within their genus. The name Galanthus means "milk-flower", and in Europe they used to also be called Candlemas bells or Fair Maids of February, Candlemas Day being our Groundhog Day, signifying the end of the winter season, and the beginning of the spring season, Candlemas being a day to bless the candles and burn the Christmas greens. Elizabeth Lawrence records in her book "The Little Bulbs": The snowdrop in purest array,
First rears her head on Candlemas Day.

There are only two species grown with any frequency in northern U.S. gardens; many of the lesser known species hail from, and grow better in, Mediterranean climates. The two species we can easily grow are nivalis (meaning growing near snow), which hails from alpine areas of Europe into southern Russia, and elwesii (named after it's first collector, Henry John Elwes), which hails more from the Caucasus and Turkey. I grow both of these species, with additionally two special varieties of nivalis: Sam Arnott (a more robust, larger flowered variety) and flore-pleno, the double form of nivalis. With any luck elwesii blooms here very close to Groundhog Day, but severe winters may see it delay blooming until the last week of February. Every spring I think that I should try to find just the right spot in the garden to see if I can get it to bloom in January, but in fall's rush I always forget; spots that get early spring sun and warmth but yet don't bake dry in the summer (which snowdrops don't like), are rare anyway. As mentioned, the flowers of the different species of Galanthus are much alike, but elwesii has leaves more grey-green, and one leaf at the base wraps around the other slightly (convolute), and the inner petals have two prominent green blotches (as opposed to one smaller blotch on nivalis, which has more strap-like leaves). The picture above shows the two green blotches of elwesii, one heart-like. Also one can see from the picture that the tips of the leaves have a small white spot. This hard tip is used by the plant to thrust up through the partially frozen soil. Snowdrops have a charming trait of lowering their flowers down almost to the ground when weather turns very cold or especially if snowy, thus hugging the ground, as if bowing to the return of winter. They then raise up again when the sun returns, but after repeating this performance several times, they remain a little stoop-shouldered. Nivalis blooms somewhat later than elwesii, its leaves smaller and opposite. Mrs. Graff, in her book "Flowers in the Winter Garden", disparages nivalis as "an inferior sort with narrow leaves and sepals hardly better than slivers, and with a meager crescent of green on the inner, tubelike petals. Its only merit, in my admittedly prejudiced opinion, is that it grows and seeds freely in shady spaces where nothing better will grow. Since it is smaller and as much as two months later than G. elwesii, there seems little reason to waste garden room on a second-rate species". She does, however, heap praise on nivalis variety Sam Arnott. Well, I like ALL snowdrops, and can't imagine a Spring in the garden without them.They have a sweet-honey fragrance, and I always have muddy knees on my trousers this time of year from getting down to smell their perfume, faint in the cool air.

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