Growing from seed

Growing snowdrops from seed

The majority of plants reproduce by seed and snowdrops are no exception. Seed is easily dispersed and allows the plant to colonise new suitable habitat. Seed is also genetically variable and allows for the production of new variants perhaps better suited to a changing environment.

Don't forget that virtually every available variety of snowdrop arose, by chance, from seed somewhere. By growing on your own seed there is always a chance that something new and exciting may emerge.

First you have to harvest your seed: this has two slight difficulties.

  1. The seed needs to ripen on the plant. We can all pick the last green tomatoes from our greenhouses and watch them change colour on a sunny windowsill. Not so snowdrops. Fruits picked early and ripened in a vase indoors will not produce viable seed. You have to check regularly out of doors and then and pick the seed capsules as they begin to yellow.
  2. Snowdrop seed has an appendage called an elaiosome; a small body rich in fatty acids and other things attractive to ants. In the wild ants probably visit the ripening pods; carrying off the elaiosomes and discarding the unwanted seed somewhere en route to their nest. You are not the only being, therefore, interested in the ripe snowdrop seed in your garden. As the capsule ripens and swells, the weight bends the supporting stalk until the capsule is resting on the ground. I have often gone for ripe seed, only to find the yellowing capsule on the ground with a circular hole in the side and the seed gone - ants or slugs or both, I assume.

Clean your seed to remove any parts of the seed pod adhering to it. If you have more than a few pods it may be easiest to clean the seed in a sieve.

Sow it thinly in a pot of proprietary compost (thus sterile and free of weed seeds), cover with a fine dusting of further compost and top off with a centimetre of fine grit; which will discourage moss and weed seedlings.

Label the pot and stand it in a protected place outdoors; an open topped frame is ideal. The seed will germinate in late winter and look like rather fine grass initially. It will take several years from germination to first flower so you will need to be patient while you wait to see what you have got.

That is the easy bit; you now have to grow these tiny seedlings on for a number of years and that is where most people come unstuck. One good drying out will be fatal; and that includes when the leaves have died back and we have forgotten all about them.

Some repotting will be necessary, the trouble is that the baby bulbs can be tiny; equal to half a rice grain and it is easy to discard them with the compost. It is also often difficult to distinguish top and bottom: if in doubt put them on their sides and they will sort themselves out. Liquid feeding is a good idea if you have not repotted; but bear in mind that many of the baby bulbs will have pulled themselves to the base of the pot and be in a sub-optimal location.

We leave the seedlings for two years in their original pot, feeding with dilute fertiliser when watering in their second year. They are then repotted into JI3 for their third year and repotted into baskets and grown in the ground for their fourth and subsequent years. First flowers appear in the fourth year but sometinmes as late as the sixth. We have the luxury of an irrigation system, so drying out when dormant is not an issue.