In mid- to late winter, when spring still seems far off, two delicate little bulbs herald the coming season. Galanthus (Galanthus spp.) commonly known as snowdrops, usually are first to rise -- often peeking through the snow. Leucojum (Leucojum spp.), commonly known as snowflakes, follow close behind. Members of the same plant family, these two bulbs share similarities yet have many differences as well.
Snowdrops and Flakes
Both snowdrops and snowflakes include several different species. Depending on variety, both bulbs can be hardy from U.S. Department of Agriculture plant hardiness zone 3 through 9. The earliest species to bloom in a typical year is the common snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis), hardy in USDA zones 3 through 8. The Latin name, loosely translated, means milk-white flowers of the snow. The earliest of the Leucojum to flower is the spring snowflake (Leucojum vernum). Hardy in USDA zones 4 through 8, and sometimes in USDA zone 3, its Latin name translates as white violet of spring. As the names suggest, the dainty flowers of both these bulbs have charmed gardeners for many years.
The diminutive flowers of common snowdrop begin as a single, erect bud on a stem just 4 to 6 inches tall. When buds begin to open in mid- to late winter, small white flower heads hang from elfin stems. With six segments to the bloom, the outer three segments measure about 1 inch long. The inner three segments, much smaller, are marked with green on their notched tips. The dangling flowers of common snowflake also bear six segments, but all measure the same length. Each one carries a green spot at its tip. Held on 12-inch scapes, the diminutive white blossoms provide an early source of nectar and pollen for bees. Both snowdrop and snowflake normally carry just one bloom per stem.
European natives, snowdrop and snowflake have been introduced and naturalized over much of Europe and the United States. The common snowdrop naturally occurs in both deciduous and coniferous woods as well as open meadows, usually in rocky, well-drained soils. Damp grasslands and damp woodlands formed the original home of spring snowflake. Unlike common snowdrop, spring snowflake thrives in moist areas and even tolerates waterlogged soil. When in woodland areas, whether damp or dry, both snowdrop and snowflake prefer open canopies that provide full sun in winter and gradually fill to shade the bulbs during summer.
To keep snowdrops and snowflakes healthy, provide each with garden locations that mirror their native homes. Wintry full-sun locations that progress to dappled summer satisfy light needs. Common snowdrop is easy to grow, widely available and naturalizes readily. It increases by both seed and offsets, and does best in drier soils. Spring snowflake requires more gentleness and patience. Although it naturalizes well, it does so slowly. It is not moved as readily, and is not as widely available. Both common snowdrop and spring snowflake have virtually no insect pests. Substances from both plants have insecticidal properties. If planted in lawn areas, let bulb foliage die back fully before mowing in spring.