Signs of Spring in the Shade Garden

By Dina Lehmann-Kim, Master Gardener

To any garden visitor strolling through Bon Air Park’s Shade Garden in mid-January, clumps of snowdrops would have immediately captured their attention given the backdrop of mostly barren garden beds filled with fallen brown leaves.

The garden has two types of snowdrops: the larger, Galanthum elwesii (giant snowdrop), and the smaller Galanthum nivalis (snowdrop). In addition to a larger flower, closer inspection shows that Galanthum elwesii has a broader, blade-shaped leaf that is a paler green than the leaves of its smaller cousin. The smaller snowdrop has narrow, spear-shaped leaves in a much darker shade of green.

The flowers of both plants have three larger external petals and three smaller internal petals.  The internal markings of the flowers are similar – each have neat rows of delicate green stripes. The giant snowdrop has an interesting X-shaped exterior marking  while the smaller Galanthus nivalis has more of a heart-shaped marking.  

Snowdrops would be a lovely addition to the borders of any garden.  This bulb can handle cold temperatures and is deer and critter resistant.  In addition to their simple beauty, they naturalize, or multiply on their own – another advantage for gardeners.  Choose a site that offers well-drained soil and full to partial sun. A garden shaded in summer is a good location, but even a garden bed in full sun will do, provided that taller perennials are present to provide the shade necessary to keep the bulbs cool during the summer months.

A garden visit in mid-February revealed that the snowdrops were not only still on display but that they had been joined by a profusion of lilac-colored Crocus tommasinianus (early crocus).

These are the early-blooming cousins of the autumn crocus (Crocus speciosus), which can also be found in the garden.  Crocuses are, after the snowdrops, among the very first bulbs to bloom.  This bulb can be planted in clusters in garden beds or even planted in a scattered fashion in a lawn where they provide unexpected bursts of color.  It is best to plant them in the fall, after the soil has cooled. Crocus tommasinianus is the purple variety, but the early blooming crocus bulb comes in other colors – yellow, blue, and white – and will naturalize over time.

In addition to the snowdrops and crocuses, there are other budding signs of spring in the garden – the hellebores (also known as Lenten roses) are beginning to show their blooms The garden recently added several other specimens to its hellebore collection, such as the Helleborus  ‘Snow Fever’ and Helleborus orientalis ‘Royal Heritage,’ which will be described in an upcoming blog post.


Flowering Bulbs: Culture and Maintenance –  Virginia Cooperative Extension

Snowdrops – Nebraska Extension Service (snowdrop)

Crocus – University of Maryland Extension (crocus)

Bulbs & More: Planting & Care -University of Illinois Extension (bulbs)

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