Hybridizers are bringing a new look to the iconic white snowdrop

Spring is here, but I can't let the old season go without giving thanks to the snowdrop, a bulb both demure in appearance and mighty in its capacity to cheer.

The so-called giant snowdrop (giant to a pixie) began flowering in these parts in late December and has wound down, but the common snowdrop is still around. It is possible to have snowdrops in the garden for five months or more if you planted a species named Galanthus reginae-olgae, a fall bloomer. That may be taking the snowdrop obsession a bit far. Even the English snowdrop fancier E.A. Bowles, writing in 1914, considered a snowdrop in autumn "sadly out of place at that season."

But from winter into spring, the snowdrop is almost alone in its plucky defiance of the cold. Never has such fortitude looked so exquisite. From its strap-like leaves - it's related to the amaryllis - the snowdrop sends up a stem from which its blooms hang like lanterns or teardrop earrings.

The bloom consists of three outer petals wrapping three smaller inner segments, and on mild days, these "outers" spread like wings to reveal the inners. In wild snowdrops, the outer petals are snow white; the inners are white, too, but with an inverted green "V" over the notch at the edge of the inner segment. The third decorative element is the bulbous ovary at the top of the flower.

In Bowles's day, snowdrops had been in England long enough for colonies to naturalize in undisturbed sites. The seed would ripen and fall to the ground, germinate the following spring and, in four years, grow to flowering size. Hence age-old clumps spread into expansive drifts.

In this rich genetic stew, the seedlings stray from their type. One in 1,000 might have an "X" marking instead of a "V." Some developed ghostly green streaks on the outer petals. In some, the markings and the ovaries were yellow. Gardeners dug these variants and took them to the greenhouse to clone them. A market for these novelties followed.

Devotees have been content to rely on these seedling selections to feed the conveyor belt of novel varieties. But now, human hybridizers are stepping in to usurp the role of the bee, carefully removing the pollen of one plant to fertilize another.

Within the limited parameters of the snowdrop flower form itself, it is remarkable how much the inner and outer petals have been pushed and pulled and painted in so many ways.

The human factor offers a couple of obvious benefits. By choosing the parent snowdrops, breeders can greatly increase the chances of getting a desired new characteristic. And they don't need expansive woodland to raise thousands of seedlings.

But there are downsides, too. One trait that has attracted some breeders is the creation of a spiky-petaled flower that, to my eye, is unrecognizable as a snowdrop. And there is always the possibility that a hybridizer will introduce a new variety that is not much different from - or better than - what's already available.

We are in the early stages of seeing snowdrops suffused with shades of orange and apricot. The coloration tends to be muddy and weak, and this direction may cause snowdrop purists to throw up their arms. But hybridizing is the long game, and if breeders work on them, they may become as pretty as white daffodils with sumptuous pink- and rose-colored cups.

"It gives us another crayon to play with in the garden," said David Culp, founder of a European-style snowdrop festival, Galanthus Gala, in Downingtown, Pa., which was held remotely this year in early March.

Anne Wright breeds miniature daffodils in northern England and turned her attention to snowdrops in 2006. "At the time, there were probably only two other people in Britain deliberately hybridizing," she said. Under her Dryad Gold series, she has developed yellow-marked snowdrops that are more upright, sturdier and keener to multiply than seedling varieties.

She is also interested in the virescent group, where the outer petals are almost entirely covered by distinct dark green areas. Many of her introductions - not available in the United States, alas - are fragrant.

It can take four to five years for a cross to reach blooming age and another five or more to grow enough of them to sell. Despite the wait, though, "it would really irritate me to go around hoping the bees have done something," Wright said. "It's more satisfying to do it yourself in a more targeted way."

John Lonsdale, a breeder and grower in Exton, Pa., says he is still content "to let the bees do their work," but he acknowledges the efficiency of hybridizing. "If you're going to be a plant breeder, you have to have very specific goals, and carefully selected parents give you the best chance," he said.

Some might say that the snowdrop is meant to be white, not green or orange, and that its natural beauty is good enough for any garden. But it is in our wiring to tinker with plants, to "improve" them for the garden.

This impulse has had a beneficial effect. It has forced us to look much more closely at the half-dozen or so snowdrop species (and their variants) that gardeners grow. The scrutiny goes beyond just the flower, to such considerations as the size and complexion of the leaves, whether the flowers are presented above the foliage, and the period of bloom.

Such precise evaluation has turned snowdrop fanciers into botanists. Botany is supposed to be the dispassionate and scientific study of plants, but, in the case of the snowdrop, the intense focus has served to bring this amazing bulb closer to our hearts.

Gardening tip:

Resist the urge to cut back winter-battered lavender plants, which may kill them. Plants can be trimmed a little once spring growth has begun. Any pruning is best done after flowering.