Snowdrops, Snowflakes, WHATEVER

Most horti-holier-than-thou professional garden writers get a little peeved when people call plants by the wrong names, or downright irritated when Latin names are mispronounced. Doesn’t bother me at all, as long as we’re still communicating, talking about the same flower.

I mean, I have to switch back and forth every time I cross the Atlantic on how I say tomato (to-MAH-to), oregano (or-e-GAH-no), and ain’t (oops – no translation in the Queen’s English). I even switch hands when picking up my fork and knife.

Large cup or trumpet Narcissus
Narcissus… or Daffodil?

It isn’t about being ignorant, it’s called going vernacular. And it’s okay. Breathe in, breathe out.

When lecturing on the West Coast, Midwest, or New England I understand that when they say “hen and chicks” I know they’re referring to Sempervivums; in the South, hen and chicks are Graptopetalum. And though I grow dozens of different kinds, including some from my horticulturist great-grandmother’s garden, I’ve long since stopped arguing over the difference between Narcissus and daffodils (they’re the same; one is Latin, the other is  folk name for English speakers. And don’t get me started over jonquils versus paperwhites!).


Both Graptopetalum and Sempervivum are called “hens and chicks”

So I don’t get my shorts in a knot over all the different buttercups, zebra plants, or wandering Jews. Let’s quickly get onto the same page and move on with our talking about whatever it is.

Quick aside: My old friend Brent Heath, 3rd-generation bulb grower from Virginia, says there is nothing “common” about common plant names – they are really folk names.

All that said, I have to just ignore it when someone in Mississippi talks about their snowdrop bulbs, when they’re referring to snowflakes. The similar early-flowering bulbs are pretty closely related and are used the same ways in gardens, but are different enough to a make a point, if you feel the need. Sorta like how apples and pears are very close relatives, but not quite the same thing.

I’ve photographed early-flowering snowdrops (Galanthus) from coast to coast and all over England, including a fascinating personal tour by Lady Carolyne Elwes of her vast Galanthus collections at her Colebourne Estate halfway between Cirencester and Cheltenhamin in the heart the Cotswolds (here’s a nice link to a winter visit there). They’re pretty, and hardy, but they have poor to no tolerance for the hot, humid summers and mild winters of the lower and coastal South.

On the other hand, snowflakes (Leucojum) spread pretty rapidly from home gardens to roadsides and moist ditches, even in wet clay, and are among the earliest flowering bulbs even in Florida.

Rather than make your eyes bleed with unnecessary details (the petals are technically tepals, and, short of writing a book, there are too many species and cultivars to get into), here are two simple photographs. Look at them, and decide if yours is one or the other.

Snowdrops – Galanthus
Snowflake – Leucojum

And call them what you want, as long as we’re admiring the same beautiful early flowers.

5 Replies to “Snowdrops, Snowflakes, WHATEVER”

  1. This is great! On a tour of the Experiment Station in Crystal Springs, I commented on some beautiful liriope (“luh-ROH-pee”), which immediately brought smiles and a friendly correction from a research horticulturalist. He said the correct pronunciation is “luh-RYE-oh-pee”. I explained to him that I was using the West-By-God-Virginia pronunciation that I learned from my Great-Grandmother. Hehehe!

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    1. It’s even funnier when experts lord it over folks in their OWN ignorance – Liriope is actually SUPPOSED to be pronounced lee-ree-O-pee…the name of the Greek mythological naiad (river nymph) who was the mother of Narcissus…


  2. Peeved? not over simple mispronunciations.
    However, I do get peeved when people try to impress with Latin, while using it improperly, or use certain plants just for bragging rights. For example, those who install Metasequoia glyptostroboides just so that they can say so, rather than saying ‘dawn redwood’. Bragging rights do not make it the right tree for the situation. Improper Latin? I had a client who used to be a chiropractor but got bored with it and became a landscape designer tell me that she puts ‘Acer maples’ into every landscape. What she meant, I think, was Japanese maples. (They really suck in San Jose.) It was ‘Acer maple’ this and ‘Acer maple’ that. When I questioned her, she could not understand that ‘Acer maples’ were related to the Norway maples. She was emphatic about it and said that she has no interest in such big ugly trees, only the ‘Acer maples’. It was like the pale white kid at Starbuck’s telling me (Tony Tomeo) how to pronounce Italian correctly, and then telling me what it means when he was completely wrong!

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