Family: Amaryllidaceae

Whilst I generally try to avoid the company of zealots (particularly in relation to politics and religion), I gladly seek out horticultural zealots – a diverse group of people who are often unfailingly generous with sharing knowledge about their field of interest. Fascination with orchids is a well-known obsession that has made its way into popular culture; undoubtedly due to the remarkable variation in floral form amongst orchids, and the adventurous brand of botany often required to see them in the wild.

Galanthophiles, on the other hand, are an entirely different breed. This is the name given to collectors and breeders of snowdrops, who observe (and select for) the countless subtle permutations that these small bulbs produce.

In our work, we are primarily interested in the way in which these elegant European bulbs contribute towards seasonality within gardens; especially the way in which they can integrate with plantings that have a strong native core. As one example, it is not hard to envisage how Galanthus reginae-olgae can be employed to enliven a planting based on the natural association of the rare sedge, Carex inopinata, a low-growing fern, Pellaea rotundifolia, and the attractive foliage of the groundcover Leptinella squalida subsp. mediana.

Due to the fact that we are based in the north of the country, our focus is on the range of species that grow in climes with conditions closer to our own. Auckland may not be as genuinely subtropical as many people like to think it is, but it is certainly no Caucasus. In effect, that means that our chief interest is in species that reside around the comparatively warm margins of the Mediterranean Basin (and on islands such as Sicily, Andros and Ikaria).

The floral form of Galanthus is geared towards insect pollination, predominantly effected by bees. Demonstrating the kind of efficiency that arises from evolution over long periods of time, the flowers open up when the temperature rises above 10°C, thereby coinciding with the time of day when their pollinators are active1, following which it returns to a close position when the temperature drops once again. This form of movement (known by the intriguing title of nyctinasty) probably also assists with protecting the flowers from the elements, given that their flowering is associated with colder times of the year.

Although there are notable exceptions (the most glaring example being G. peshmenii, which dwells within crevices on coastal cliffs), Galanthus are generally associated with woodland habitats, and show a preference towards sites with ample water during their growing season. With respect to their ecology, it is also worth noting the substrates that they favour (limestone and calcareous substrates) – a point that obviously has some bearing on how one approaches cultivation of this elegant genus.

Galanthus ikariae

Any talk of Galanthus ikariae should start with the matter of mistaken identity, for this impressive snowdrop species has been consistently confused with an unwitting impostor from the Caucasus and Transcaucasus – Galanthus woronowii. This arose from various botanical revisions (in the middle of the 20th Century) in which these species switched between being considered synonymous with each other, related subspecies, and finally independent species.

Aside from the fact that I prefer to know that the species that I am cultivating is true to its description, such errors can have tangible consequences when the taxa involved come from wildly divergent climates. And the Aegean islands of Ikaria, Andros, Naxos and Skyros clearly offer very different prospects to the cold regions flanking the Black Sea’s eastern coast (which G. woronowii inhabits).

For this reason, I am especially grateful to New Zealand’s leading snowdrop expert, Prue Harper, for providing me with the opportunity to grow the true G. ikariae. As an endemic of the Aegean Islands, it is well suited to the climate of northern New Zealand, and therefore one of the main species that we have been interested in trialling within Auckland.

The broad, bright green foliage of G. ikariae establishes a welcome contrast with the glaucous foliage of G. elwesii (and its many varieties) and Galanthus reginae-olgae‘s narrow, distinctly striped leaves within the woodland garden outside our studio, and its comparatively large flowers (borne in mid-winter) have a simple, ‘classical’ quality to them.

We are hopeful that Galanthus ikariae shows some enthusiasm towards self-seeding around here (a tendency that is commented upon with this species), so that we can experiment with it in various planting associations. Chief amongst a lineup of species with which we are keen to grow it is one of our native climbing ferns, Icarus filiformis (pictured above), whose name refers to the mythical figure, Icarus – after whom the island of Ikaria (and its resident snowdrop) was named.

Galanthus reginae-olgae

The habitat photos included within this plant profile (of Galanthus reginae-olgae in the wild in Greece) are provided by Logan Drummond. As with all other images on the O2 Landscapes website, ownership resides with the photographer, and these images may not be used or reproduced without the consent of both Logan and O2 Landscapes.

Due to their audacious habit of producing flowers at unlikely times of year, snowdrops have a strong association with winter and spring. However, with Galanthus reginae-olgae leading the charge, a number of species/varieties time their respective runs for autumn.

The sense of surprise on seeing this species in early autumn is amplified by the fact that its flowers often emerge without leaves. It is no coincidence that we grow several autumn-flowering snowdrops here (G. reginae-olgae var. reginae-olgae and several cultivars of Galanthus elwesii var. monostictus), for species that exhibit this trait all occur in warmer areas surrounding the Mediterranean.

The narrow, attractive foliage of Galanthus reginae-olgae gives this species a highly distinctive appearance, due in large part to the definition and contrast established by the whitish stripe running down the centre of its dark green leaves.

Two subspecies are recognised; the classic autumn-flowering G. reginae-olgae var. reginae-olgae, and the later-flowering G. reginae-olgae var. vernalis (to which the variety ‘Miss Adventure’ belongs). Due to the fact that this species occurs in relatively dry habitats of Italy (including Sicily), and the Balkans (including Greece and Croatia), it benefits from a correspondingly well-drained position in gardens.


  1. As described within Aaron Davis’ monograph, ‘The Genus Galanthus’ (1999. Portland, Oregon : Timber Press).