White magic

While no garden could be complete without several clumps of undemanding snowdrops, other white flowering bulbs are also well worth exploring.

While no garden could be complete without several clumps of undemanding snowdrops, other white flowering bulbs are also well worth exploring

Tiny snowdrops have a perfect sense of drama. Long before their flamboyant colleagues, such as the crocus, daffodil and tulip, steal the spring garden show, these humble bells take it upon themselves to ring in our new growing season. While no garden could be complete without several clumps of undemanding snowdrops, other white flowering bulbs are also well worth exploring.

The hundreds of snowdrop varieties (Galanthus), members of the deer- and rodent-resistant amaryllis family, are divided into three distinct groups based on their leaf type: Nivales (thin, grey-green leaves embracing a flower stalk in their midst), Plicati (pleated V-shaped grey-green leaves) and Latifolii (broad, dark-green or grey-blue leaves partially embracing the flower stalk).

galanthus ikariaeGalanthus ikariae

By far the most popular snowdrop is Galanthus nivalis. This 15-centimetre-tall plant features three snow-white petals, about 2.5 centimetres long, which surround smaller green-tipped petals. Since unplanted snowdrop bulbs don’t like drying out, plant them as early as you can – late summer or very early fall would be preferable. Situate them in average soil where you can enjoy them from close by, at the edge of a path, in a rock garden or in a lawn that then should be left alone until the snowdrops have gone completely dormant. Over the years, snowdrops will multiply and spread themselves in cheerful clumps. If you wish to relocate your abundance of snowdrops, do it in early spring just after they have flowered.

For double-flower aficionados there is G. nivalis ‘Flore Pleno,’ 10 centimetres tall, with white outer petals encircling a mass of green-tinged inner petals. From a distance or nearby, its burst of white is equally impressive.

In case you decide to become a snowdrop collector, search for G. nivalis ‘S. Arnott,’ a vigorous naturalizer that on a sunny day spreads its rounded petals like shiny little propellers. Try this beauty as a cut flower and enjoy its sweet honey-like fragrance indoors. Another collector’s item would be G. nivalis ‘Viridapicis.’ Up to 30 centimetres tall, its inner flower segments are green-tipped, while the outer segments are blotched with green.

Ornithogalum nutansOrnithogalum nutans

Members of the Plicatus group are very hard to find, but its most famous offshoot, G. plicatus ‘Warham,’ originating from the Crimea, Russia, is worth a quest. Not only are its rounded flowers exquisite, its exceptionally broad-leaved foliage is also a joy to behold in the winter garden.

Readily available in the Latifolii group is the popular giant snowdrop, G. elwesii, which hails from Turkey. Whereas the other snowdrops I’ve mentioned are easygoing, I find elwesii a little finicky; it seems to desire a slightly warmer and drier microclimate and a poorer soil than its relatives. Having said that, every spring a lone G. elwesii shines in a cold and heavily manured bed in my garden, while some other wayward representatives of this group decide to flower at Christmastime in another equally unsuitable bed. Plants, like people, can be unpredictable!

Leucojum aestivum
Leucojum aestivum

Apart from snowdrops, some other members of the amaryllis family also produce bell-shaped white flowers: the spring snowflake (Leucojum vernum), summer snowflake (L. aestivum) and fall snowflake (L. autumnale).

From a distance you might confuse some of these flakes with the more ubiquitous snowdrops, but a closer look will reveal salient differences. A snowflake, about 30 centimetres tall, has dark-green, fleshy, daffodil-like leaves, and its two- to three-centimetre sweetly scented flowers are six petalled with green tips. These snowflakes will remind you of round old-fashioned beaded lampshades.

Spring snowflakes flower from April to June, while by the end of May summer snowflakes appear. The resemblance of summer snowflakes to snowdrops is remote. When happily growing in a moist location their flower stalks can reach over half a metre, with four to six little bells dangling on tiny stems from each stalk. A very large variety is L. aestivum ‘Gravetye Giant,’ which is easily grown along a pond.

Interestingly, although flowering in summer, summer snowflakes can show their leaves as early as January or even December. L. autumnale, flowering by the end of September, is a tender, 10-centimetre-tall, slightly pinkish immigrant from Spain and Portugal. It emerges by producing thin flower stalks and then, about two weeks later, wiry leaves appear. This is a bulb for gardeners devoted to pampering exotics.

A sheltered spot close to a wall offering southern exposure with rather dry, well-drained and somewhat leafy soil might please this tiny gem. (For three autumns my three delicate fall snowflakes contentedly bloomed; then, without warning, they disappeared. Another unsolved horticultural mystery!) Although L. autumnale poses a veritable horticultural challenge, all snowflakes are successful bulbs for gardeners sharing their plots with rabbits, deer and squirrels.

ornithogalum arabicumOrnithogalum arabicum

Ornithogalum, from the lily family, is an underused group of easy white-flowering bulbs that are excellent for naturalizing in grass or under deciduous trees. Its earliest member is the March-blooming O. balansae, which features dark-green leaves with greenish-white flowers in sturdy clusters, approximately 20 centimetres tall. At the beginning of May, O. narbonense, 35 centimetres tall, follows with long stalks loaded with flattish blooms decorated with a faint green line. At the same time appear Ornithogalum’s most popular members, the energetically naturalizing star of Bethlehem (O. umbellatum) and O. nutans. These carefree flowers like to play hide and seek – on sunless days the blooms will remain closed, rendering them invisible, camouflaged as they are with the green outside of their petals blending in with the flower stalks. But as soon as the sun appears, a burst of brilliant white stars and bells will dazzle your eyes! (Quite aptly, a common name for these sun lovers is sleepy Dick, referring to their usually late-in-the-day “awakening.”)

At the beginning of June, the giant O. magnum, more than 70 centimetres tall and featuring white flowers with yellow stamens, concludes the hardy Ornithogalum bulb show.

Gardeners who like to venture into less hardy summer-blooming bulbs could expand their Ornithogalum collection with South African varieties that are often sold as cut flowers: long-blooming O. thyrsoides (white flowers with a green tinge, and 50 centimetres tall), O. arabicum (white flowers with black ovaries, 60 centimetres tall) and O. pyramidale (racemes of flat white flowers with light-green stripes, 45 centimetres tall).

Simply plant your bulbs in full sun in May when the soil has warmed up, and in winter keep them dry and frost free as you would with dahlias and gladioli. Or, alternatively, enjoy these majestic stunners on a sunny patio in planters that can be transferred to a location with above-zero temperatures in winter.

The following plants are hardy up to the zone number indicated: Galanthus (snowdrops) – zone 4 • Leucojum aestivum (summer snowflake) – zone 6 • Leucojum autumnale (autumn snowflake) – zone 8 • Leucojum vernum (spring snowflake) – zone 6 • Ornithogalum arabicum – zone 9 • Ornithogalum balansae – zone 8 • Ornithogalum magnum – zone 9 • Ornithogalum narbonense – zone 8 • Ornithogalum nutans – zone 6 • Ornithogalum pyramidale – zone 9 • Ornithogalum thyrsoides – zone 9 • Ornithogalum umbellatum – zone 6

Writer Ingeborg van Driel devotes most of her free time to hands-on experiments with plants in her beloved garden in Cobble Hill, B.C.

Sources Botanus 1-800-672-3413; www.botanus.com • Bulb Farm 250-652-6863; e-mail: rench@look.ca • Dominion Seed House 1800-784-3037; e-mail: mail@dominion-seed-house.com • Fraser’s Thimble Farms 250-537-5788; www.thimblefarms.com • McFayden 1-800-205-7111; www.mcfayden.com • Veseys 1-800-363-7333; www.veseys.com. PHOTOS Carolyn Jones: Galanthus ikariae; Therese D’Monte: Leucojum vernum; all others courtesy Internationaal Bloembollen Centrum Hillegom, Holland