A lovely little flowering bulb from the mountains of western Turkey is Chionodoxa forbesii, also known as “glory of the snow” since it has the habit of flowering so early that it pushes right up through the snow. The first time I saw this species at a garden center it was the cultivar ‘Pink Giant’, and I mistook it for some kind of dwarf hyacinth. Later, when I saw the typical blue flowered form, I immediately realized this was a close relative of Scilla, yet still a member of the hyacinth family.
This dwarf bulb is no giant, regardless of its clonal name. Full grown plants stand between 15-20 cm tall, perhaps a bit higher than the usual wild blue flowered form. This species has true tunicate bulbs that are somewhat elongate with a distinct growing point, each ~ 5 cm long. The leaves, numbering two to three per bulb, are dark green, narrow and somewhat fleshy, and stand erect. They rise synchronously with the flower stalks, and persist only into late May or early June before going into dormancy.
Each bulb can have more than one inflorescence, yet mine seem to be limited to one. It stands perfectly straight, is suffused with purple, and is just a bit taller than the leaves. Flowers number between 5-8 per stem, are held more or less facing upwards, and are around 3 cm in diameter. The six sepals and petals are fasciate, that is, fused at the base and slightly cupped, forming a lovely star shape. The bright yellow stamens and pistol are held in a tight bundle at the flower’s center. Flower color in this variety is more pale lavender, rather than true pink, and as with the blue form, the base of the flower segments are pure white.
As its common names suggests, Chionodoxa are early season flowers, though not as early as Hepatica species or snowdrops, which truly do sometimes break through the snow to bloom. In my southern Japanese garden this plant flowers alongside early blooming Narcissus, usually from late March to early April, some weeks after the latest snowfall. The flowers are fairly long lived, even under rainy conditions, but look best on sunny days.
This genus is confined to the islands of Crete and Cyprus, as well as western Turkey. C. forbesii is found only in southwestern Turkey at higher elevations (>2500 meters), a place where snow persists into this plant’s flowering cycle. Its Latin name reflects this habit, with the Greek words chion meaning “snow”, and doxa translated in this case as “glory”, thus rendering “snow glory”. Interestingly, the original meaning of doxa was “to expect or seem” impling a common belief system (as in the word orthodoxy, for instance), however, during the translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into Greek, it was assigned a new meaning, “glory”.
There has been quite a bit of confusion in the scientific naming of this genus, with the species C. forbesii, C. gigantea, C. luciliae, and C. siehei often being confounded. From what I’ve read, C. siehei was confused with C. luciliae for many years, and has since been merged under C. forbesii. C. gigantea appears to be a defunct name. For further clarification (?!) reference this 2005 RHS publication – “Little Blue Bulbs”, p. 5. Not surprisingly, C. forbesii ‘Pink Giant’ has been, and continues to be, marketed under a variety of species names. If this weren’t enough, some botanists don’t even agree that the genus Chionodoxa is distinct from Scilla… and so it goes.
Naming aside, this is a wonderful little plant for the temperate garden. Here at 34 degrees north latitude, in an equivalent USDA cold hardiness zone 9a/9b, I think I am pushing its heat tolerance. While I’ve had no problems with rotting during their summer dormancy, my plants do not increase much from year to year, nor do they self seed. This doesn’t surprise me – many temperate plants are at their limit in this nearly subtropical climate, and yet they persist. Another confusing point about this plant – while the blue flowered forms self seed readily, sometimes to the point of being invasive, ‘Pink Giant’ is said to be less fecund. Some sources even report it to be self sterile – something I have not verified for myself as of this writing.
C. forbesii is a very cold tolerant plant, being able to withstand USDA zone 3 even (minimums in the – 40 C range), while also handling areas as mild as zone 8, or even 9. It is often recommended for semi-shady conditions in well drained soils, though my plants grow in full sun and are subject to a very wet early summer monsoon with no problem. In cooler climates this species probably doesn’t want much shade, and may become “floppy” if grown without enough sun. See the excellent article on this plant at Paghat’s Garden, “‘Pink Giant’, Glory of the Snow”, particularly if you are growing them in a cool summer climate.
They are best suited for near neutral soils and like sharp drainage. Again though, my plants have persisted for years in a moderately acidic, rich loamy soil that is routinely subjected to intense and persistent summer rains. I’m not suggesting this is optimal, just that they can withstand it. Of course, boggy or peaty soils should be avoided. If I were more diligent, I suppose I could sweeten my bulb beds with a bit of lime each season, but I haven’t, and losses have been few.
As with many spring flowering bulbs, this species can be force-flowered inside for a midwinter show. Bear in mind though, the cold treatment period has to be at least 15 weeks in duration for proper flowering. The expected time between taking them out and flowering will be around two to three weeks depending on light and temperature.
One interesting option is growing them in turf, as you would with Scilla or Crocus. Such plantings are stunning while in flower (imagine a field of pink and purple flowers), but afterwards may be too raggedy looking for some gardens. The reason is you must allow the bulbs to grow and store reserves for next season, hence you cannot mow until they have gone down, sometime in early summer or late spring. Personally, I’ve always dreamt of having such a field of “wildflowers”, say under a sparse canopy of flowering trees (dogwoods and redbuds come to mind) – an Eden on earth!
So here’s another adaptable, lovely bulb, suitable for almost any temperate climate. If you love small flowering bulbs and haven’t got this one yet, I highly recommend hunting some down.