Friday, 8 January 2021

How to: tell the difference between Daffodils and Snowdrops, when they first emerge.

 It's that time of year again! What Helen Yemm calls the "Boot and Shoot Ballet", where the bulbs are just coming through, and we have to be very careful where we put our feet.

Mind you, I say "bulbs are just coming through" but this photo:

...was taken on 26th October.

Er hem.

Anyway, it's now officially January, the depths of winter, and just as we are all getting depressed about the short days, the cold weather, and the low  light levels, lo! and behold, we get the first signs of spring, the bulbs start to come up.

Yes, ok, I know that some of them started back in October... but generally speaking, it's the depths of winter.

I'm often asked how to tell which bulbs are which: and there are two answers to this question, one relates to "what is this bulb which I have accidentally dug up" and the other covers "which bulb is this, which is growing in the garden".

For the first question, that being Bulb ID, you will need a time machine so that you can go back in time to last autumn, and can go and look round the garden centre, where they have racks of bulbs in packs, for sale. (It's too late now, so you'll have to wait until next autumn.)

This is a perfect opportunity to learn which bulb is which. The packs usually have a nice bright colour picture on the front, and a transparent bag, so you can check the condition of the bulbs, before you buy.

(Top Tip: when buying bulbs for your garden, use the same criteria as you would when buying onions for the kitchen: if the bulbs are firm, nicely coloured, and look good, they are ok to buy. If they are tatty, mouldy, and/or squishy, return them firmly to the shelf.)

Drat, I did have a photo of a bulb selection, from last autumn, which I took along to show my Trainee, because it was a sort of "Usual Suspects" of bulbs. But I can't find it. Sorry! I would describe them all to you, but honestly, it's better to look at them for real, or type "snowdrop bulb" in quotes into your search engine, and look at Images. Then repeat it for Daffodils, tulips, crocus, and anything else which interests you.

So, onto the second answer: how do you know what's coming up in the garden?  Specifically, I was asked how to tell the difference between Daffodils and Snowdrops. 

 This was an interesting question: like so many gardening questions, an experienced gardener just "knows" the answer, and I find it fascinating to explain something to someone else, because it often throws up interesting points of botany etc, which would otherwise never get explained properly.

Here's a picture of two pots from my front yard, taken on the 19th December:

The one on the left contains Daffodils - a miniature variety called Tete a Tete, which is my second-favourite all time Daffodil.

The pot on the right contains Snowdrops.

Look at the colour - just the overall impression of colour.

The Daffs, on the left, are a bright green.

The Snowdrops, on the right, are a greyish green. I'd be prepared to accept bluey-green or bluey-gray, the point being that they are not bright spring green.

So that's your first clue: the colour. Snowdrop foliage is generally not a clear bright green.

Now, the problem with this sort of comment, is that, until your eye has "learned" what you mean by bright green or bluey-green, it doesn't really help unless you have the two of them, side by side.

So here's something more definite to look for.


Daffodil leaves have faint lines in them: 

Can you see that pattern of vertical lines?

I'm not sure if they are the veins of the leaves, or just colouration, but when you look closely, under good light, you can just see a faint, delicate, striped effect.

Snowdrops, on the other hand, having honking great stripes. Quite unmistakable.

Look at this clump - left: there are dark green sections, light green sections, even a whole lot of white parts. 

This gives the plant a sort of mint-humbug effect.

This is partly why they have the bluey-grey effect: they are not any one single colour, but are an interesting two-tone or even three-tone sort of plant.

So, daffs are green and mostly not-stripey: Snowdrops are blue-green and quite stripey.

And now to our third and possibly most useful clue:

As the new leaves emerge from the bulb, they are covered by a sheath, which protects the delicate tips, as they push their way out.

Here's a close-up view of the Daffodil base:

Rather a yellowy green, in this picture...

Can you see how there is a sheath, wrapping the very base of each shoot?

It's the same bright green as the leaves, and has a whiter ring around the top, so you can clearly see it.

Don't worry about the enormous transparent growths, they are just drops of water. It had been raining... 

Look at a few of the shoots in this picture, and decide for yourself roughly how far up the shoot they extend. A short distance? Halfway? Nearly all the way to the top?

And here is the pot of Snowdrops, same day, same time: can you see how the sheath is much whiter than the leaves (which are, as you know, a bluey green, and stripey to boot), and it extends much further up the shaft of the leaves.

Yes, there is one there whose sheath is only half-way up the leaves: this is a practical demonstration of Rachel's Rule number 1 (for Botany, that is), which is "Everything you read or hear about a plant should, could, and probably will, be prefaced by the word 'usually'"

This just means that you need to look at a selection of plants, and take the average.

So if you look between these two photos, you can see that on Daffodils, the sheath is "usually" quite short, whereas on the Snowdrops, it is "usually" very long, almost up to the top of the leaves.

Now here we are, a week later: first, the Daffodils:

Check out the sheath: it's still very much "low", isn't it?

This day was somewhat milder (it was the 27th Dec, if you are interested) and you can see how the leaves are starting to part, to open up a little bit.

Still a nice, clear, bright green.

Here - right - is a close-up of the Snowdrops on the same day.

This close, you can see the stripes on the leaves, as well.

But the important part is the sheath, which is still tall, as a proportion of the shoot. 

The leaves are also still being held much closer together than those of the Daffodil.

It's as though the Daffs are optimists, starting to open up in hopes of spring: whereas the Snowdrops are still braced for the snow and cold weather yet to come.

Please note: that is a whimsical comment, not a botanical observation.


There are, of course, many other bulbs in the garden: Crocus are very small, with fine, grass-like leaves, and the flowers appear very soon after the foliage, sometimes almost simultaneously. Hyacinth are great big things, and the short fat leaves contain the bundled-up flower buds, almost as soon as they clear the ground, so they're easy to spot. And then there are the Muscari/Grape Hyacinths, or the Scourge of South Oxfordshire, as I call them:  they have very find, spindly, foliage, often floppy, so they are again, easy to recognise. 

But when it comes to Snowdrops and Daffodils, there you go,  three things to look for, if you would like to know which is which, without having to wait for the flowers to arrive.

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