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Leucojums - the Snowflakes

More information / speculation about the genus

Images 2005

The Spring Snowflake near a stream in Somerset..

Spring snowflake close up images

The Spring Snowflake near a stream in Somerset.

Wild flowers of the UK, Leucojum aestivum

Summer Snowflake growing in Weston-super-Mare, flowering early in a cold season (February)
Summer Snowflake (cultivated) close up images

Summer Snowflake growing on the bank of the River Loddon (near Reading, UK), which is why it is also called the "Loddon Lily" here in the UK.
Summer Snowflake (UK wild form) close up images

The River Loddon as it approaches the Thames.

Notes about this intriguing genus - ongoing and subject to errors (by me).
Please send me any comments / corrections or criticisms
I have received some enormously helpful comments and information from Ena Gatenby - who is the National Collection holders for this genus and from John Grimshaw, an expert on Galanthus and Leucojum. Mistakes remain entirely my responsibility of course.

The genus Leucojum now has only two species: L. aestivum and L. vernum but L. aestivum has two sub-species (and there are several garden variants of each). All other species that were classified as Leucojum are now being moved to Acis. See this link (There are other differences but all Acis have no green/yellow markings at the end of the tepals.)

Older names for the current Leucojum species include:

L. pulchellum

  Leucojum aestivum subsp. pulchellum

L. hernandezii

  Leucojum aestivum subsp. pulchellum

L. vagneri

  Leucojum vernum var. vagneri (robust variant)

L. carpathicum

  Leucojum vernum var. carpathicum (robust variant with yellow tepal spots)

Leucojum vernum

Apart from being called the Spring Snowflake this is also known as St. Joseph's Bells in the UK.

Leucojum aestivum

The sub-species of L. aestivum show the following differences:
  L. aestivum subsp. aestivum L. aestivum subsp. pulchellum

Flower size

Larger Smaller

Flower stem edges

Rough Smooth
Spathe (bract behind flowers on stem) Wide Narrow

Flowering time (UK)

January to April March to May
Flower marking (www.amaryllidaceae.org) "striated with green near the top"  
Fruit (www.amaryllidaceae.org) pear shaped small, oblong

This information comes from Stace and the website www.amaryllidaceae.org. The flowering time estimates are mine based on sources mentioned below and observation here in Weston-super-Mare. If you are really "into" this see my measured characteristics below.)

It certainly seems intriguing to me that the flower has clearly been named "Summer Snowflake" in more than one country for many centuries. In view of the manifest failure to flower in high summer here in the UK and bearing in mind the variation shown in the sub-species I do wonder whether the species is quite variable in this characteristic.

(Other common names include: Loddon Lily; Devon Snowflake; St Agnew flower and St George's Violet.)

Update after a visit to the L. aestivum subsp. aestivum on the River Loddon, near Reading, UK.

There is a large variation in the flower size among the wild plants at this site (10 to 30 mm tepal length) and also the flower form varies more than I have seen in garden varieties. I could not see the green striations on flowers mentioned at www.amaryllidaceae.org but the flowers are often striated with darker lines. (See the pictures.)

E A Bowles in his classic "My Garden in Spring", published in 1914, had this to say about Leucojum:

The Spring Snowflake is so nearly a Snowdrop and flowers with the later ones that I shall praise it here. My favourite form is that known to science as Leucojum vernum, var. Vagneri, but which lies hidden in catalogues and nurseries as carpathicum. Both are larger, more robust forms than ordinary vernum, and strong bulbs give two flowers on each stem, but whereas carpathicum has yellow spots on the tips of the segments, Vagneri has inherited the family emeralds. It is an earlier flowering form than vernum, and a delightful plant to grow in bold clumps on the middle slopes of the flatter portions of the rock garden. Plant it deeply and leave it alone, and learn to recognise the shining narrow leaves of its babes, and to respect them until your colony is too large for your own pleasure, and you can give it away to please others.

L. Hernandezii, also known as L. pulchellum, has won a place in my affections by its useful preference for wet feet. Like the larger and finer, but later L. aestivum, it thrives well on the very edge of water, and looks so much better there than anywhere else, that I advise such a planting. Hernandezii flowers over a long period, throwing up a succession of flower-stems, and it comes in Daffodil days, at a time when other white water-side flowers are asleep.

Note what he says about his "Hernandezii " flowering longer and earlier.

A correspondent to the Pacific Bulb Society email list living in Kansas City, Missouri reports that L. aestivum blooms prior to L. vernum there.

Leucojum is from Greek - literally "white violet". This seems to be the accepted modern spelling but many would say the older one - Leucoium was more faithful to the Greek derivation.


L. aestivum subsp. aestivum : Ireland, The United Kingdom, Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, France, Switzerland, Italy, Austria, Yugoslavia, Albania, Greece, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine (SW and the Crimea), Turkey, Iran, Georgia, Russia (the Caucasus).

L. aestivum subsp. pulchellum : France (the Alps-Maritimes., Corsica), Spain (Balearic Islands), Italy (continent, Sardinia).

Garden use

Leucojum aestivum has been cultivated since the 16th Century at least. The selected form Gravetye Giant is popular in the UK and was named in 1924 by William Robinson of Gravetye Manor. (I believe it is a selected form of L. aestivum subsp. aestivum.)

The distribution maps of the two sub-species in the UK are interesting - showing that those growing "wild" in many parts of the UK (eg where I live) are actually L. aestivum subsp. pulchellum - and hence the logic goes - must be garden escapes as that sub-species is not native to this country. The assumption must be that L. aestivum that was brought into the country commercially (or otherwise) a while ago tended to be subsp. pulchellum (from the Mediterranean ?) - whereas commercially supplied bulbs are often subsp. aestivum now.

John Grimshaw comments:
"Conceivably there is a L. aestivum that is not ssp. aestivum or ssp. pulchellum, but if so it hasn't been discovered! It would be nice to know more about the range of variation in the species, but L. aestivum is one of those plants that gardeners don't take much interest in - and most academic botanists simply do not notice the variation that interests gardeners. Also it grows in awkward wet places where most of the bulb enthusiasts would never think of going, so one never hears about people seeing it in the wild. There is a dearth of selections in gardens, 'Gravetye Giant' being the only formally named one to my knowledge.

I have a strong suspicion that most of the bulbs sold by the trade are wild collected so there must be a flow of variation coming into gardens."

My own recorded characteristics of Leucojum aestivum


Leucojum aestivum subsp. aestivum (Near River Loddon, UK) Leucojum aestivum subsp. aestivum (My garden) Leucojum aestivum subsp. pulchellum (Shrubbery, Weston-super-Mare)
Flowers per stem 4 - 5 4 - 7 3 - 4 (5)
Spathe 45 - 60 x 7 - 8 mm 50 x 7 mm 45 x 8 mm
Tepals 10 - 29 mm 18 - 22 mm 12 - 18 mm. Longer towards the end of the flowering season. Many flowers show marked variation in tepal width between "odd" and "even" ones (5 - 8 mm)
Leaves 50 - 70 cm long and 15 - 17 mm wide 50 cm long and 13 mm wide about 40 cm long, 20 mm wide by March.
Flower stem 60 cm. Two sharp, denticulate edges Two sharp, sparsely denticulate edges Two sharp, entire edges.
  Showing parts of the flower in different species, Leucojum aestivum subsp. aestivum Showing parts of the flower in different species, Leucojum aestivum subsp. aestivum Showing parts of the flower in different species, Leucojum aestivum subsp. pulchellum

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J R Crellin 2005