PETAL, SEPAL OR TEPAL?
POT'S GROWING ON? 09/02/24
Would we love snowdrops as much if they flowered at other times of year? I think we would; for their unusual hanging buds, described botanically as pendulous; for their soft pale green leaves; their ease of growing in all conditions; and their bright white flowers with perfect green markings. Snowdrops are as perfect a plant as I’ve ever seen and their timing, when little else is in flower, marking the start of the growing season, turns into wonder.
The flowers are made up of white tepals, not petals. Botany came up with three useful rhyming names for different types of petaly things. If it seems confusing at first, it will make sense eventually, and the close rhyming nature of the words I’ve actually found over the years makes it much easier to remember.
To explain, normally on plants we see colourful petals held within a familiar green bud of outer things called sepals. Sepals are tougher, protecting the more fragile inner petals. However, on some plants, the sepals and petals have no difference and these are jointly called tepals. Snowdrops are the perfect example where you can see the bud emerges white, there are no green sepals. Inside them is another bunch of white tepals that are a different shape, but are technically almost the same thing.
If you’re interested in the science of the snowdrop flower structure and need a refresher of the biology, the other things worth knowing are... that a ring of any petal, sepal or tepal on a flower is called a perianth, basically the non sexual parts of the flower. The green sheath bit above the flower is called a spathe, which held all of the flowering parts as the snowdrop emerged before dangling over. The comical sounding peduncle joins the flower to the stem, and the ovary is the visible female part of the flower holding the ovules (a bit like eggs). On snowdrops the ovary adds to the visual beauty of the plant. Inside the tepals are the male part of the flower, the stamen with pollen on, which is carried by insects to the stigma. From the stigma it travels along the style to the ovary to pollinate (fertilises) the ovules in other snowdrops. The stigma, style and ovary form the female part of the flower called the pistil.
But you don’t need to know any of that to enjoy snowdrops. I’m interested in the visual dichotomy of loving snowdrops in clumps while also loving them in big drifts. Drifts look visually spectacular and, because snowdrops are so easy to grow, are simple to create for very little money. Plant a bunch of bulbs and over the years the display gets better and better. And unlike more aggressive plants like ground elder, the little snowdrop doesn’t take over.
And yet, I love the single clumps too, tucked away behind a tree trunk or wall. Bringing us joy growing on their own next to a gate or path.
It’s hard to have both a drift and magical solitary clump. It’s easy to get carried away planting more and more. As I have been. At some point we have to restrain ourselves. Which is hard to do with the beautiful snowdrop.
In our garden we grow two types of snowdrop: Galanthus ‘Sam Arnott’ which flowers first and is largest, without having chunky leaves (as Galanthus elwesii have - which I don’t like), and Galanthus nivalis, which is smaller and flowers about two weeks later for a second wave. I’m slowly removing a double flowered variety with mutated additional tepals because I prefer the cleanness of the regular flower and they seem easier for insects to access.
p.s. if you’re a premium Wild Way subscriber, why not take a look back at last year’s magazine issue from February 2023 for even more gardening ideas?