Getting to Grips with Spring Bulbs

Last weekend, I decided to take a closer look at wild and naturalised spring bulbs. From snowdrops to crocuses, here are a few spotted on recent walks.

Daffodils, crocuses and of course, snowdrops are some of our most iconic and beautiful spring flowers. Despite this, they can be a tricky bunch to tell apart with a great many species out there and in the case of the daffodils, many confusing and largely similar cultivars. Recording for the Urban Flora, this spring, I’ve made it my mission to learn the most abundant species and varieties growing in my local area. It will take a while, for sure, but a few initial discoveries are shared below.


I’ve always assumed that crocuses would be a difficult bunch to learn. I’m not sure why. That said, there doesn’t appear to be as much diversity locally as I had assumed the commonest naturalised (and dumped) varieties inevitably turn out to be one of the three below. This website is a great help when identifying them.

Early Crocus (Crocus tommasinianus)

With its vivid, lilac petals and tendency to bloom in great drifts, Early Crocus is a lovely little plant. Introduced from South-East Europe, this species is commonly planted in parks and churchyards. It readily naturalises and can form large colonises where conditions are right, as seen below on the approach to Jesmond Dene.

Early Crocus is told apart from the rest by its pale lilac-coloured petals, white petal tube and narrow leaves.

Spring Crocus (Crocus neapolitanus)

Spring Crocus is a burly plant and comes in a host of colours. It is the species most likely to be planted in gardens and along roadsides and for this reason, is often the one that makes its way into the wild via waste or deliberate introductions. A native of Southern Europe, it was only recently split from White Crocus (Crocus vernus) which I am yet to see locally.

This one can be identified by the purple petal tube at the base of the flower and its large size. Looking closer, you’ll also notice that its branched stigma is longer than the three stamens that surround it. In White Crocus, this is noticeably shorter.

Yellow Crocus (Crocus x luteus)

A garden hybrid, Yellow Crocus is very popular in cultivation and is often planted in gardens, parks and areas of community planting. It will persist in the wild from garden throw-out but can also be found as an introduced plant in a variety of habitats. Those below were spotted on a parkland bank and urban playing field.

Yellow Crocus has vibrant, golden-yellow petals with a variable amount of brown smudging on the exterior. Usually, this is less prominent than in Golden Crocus (Crocus chrysanthus) but not always and the only surefire way to separate them is to look at the corm. In Yellow Crocus, this divides vertically.


Ah, snowdrops. Cheery, abundant and altogether lovely, they are surely one of our best spring flowers. They are also pretty diverse with several species, hybrids and cultivars likely to pop up in urban areas where they have been dumped or introduced. Some of these varieties are easier to separate than others and I’ve managed to find a few in the local area. The BSBI key to snowdrops is a great place to start.

Greater Snowdrop (Galanthus elwesii)

A hulking plant, noticeably larger than our Common Snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) Greater Snowdrop has its roots in the Caucuses. It is frequently planted in parks, churchyards, large gardens and amenity land and may occasionally spread where conditions allow. Such was the case in the lovely Northumbrian cemetery below.

This species has extremely broad leaves which are both glaucous and hooded at the tip. The markings on the inner petals of the flower are striking and usually take the form of a dark-green ‘x’ shape as seen below. The flowers can vary, however, and if you have something different, you may have a distinct form or cultivar.

Galanthus x hybridus (Galanthus elwesii x plicatus)

While admiring the Greater Snowdrops in the aforementioned cemetery, there were also many plants present which displayed the features of Pleated Snowdrop (Galanthus plicatus). I had assumed they were just that until some help from Alex Prendergast on Twitter revealed they were likely the hybrid between these two species, Galanthus x hybridus.

As you might expect, the hybrid is intermediate between the parents with somewhat pleated leaves with hooded tips. I’ll know next time!

Green Snowdrop (Galanthus woronowii)

A far nice snowdrop to contend with is the Green Snowdrop. Introduced occasionally to gardens and greenspaces and occasionally escaping, this is another large and impressive species. Thankfully, it lives up to its name in having bright grass-green leaves which contrast with the glaucous foliage of other species. You need to consider Galanthus ikariae too but this does seem to be the more common of the two.

Snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis)

Ah, finally, the Common Snowdrop. With their thin leaves and altogether delicate appearance, this is the snowdrop you’re most likely to find just about anywhere, from woodlands to parks. What is interesting about these, however, is that there are several distinct forms to watch for too.

Commonly occurring within large populations of Common Snowdrop or as a deliberate introduction in itself, the double-flowered variety (Galanthus nivalis f. pleniflorus) has stacks of additional petals and is a brute in comparison to the usual sort.

You’re not likely to encounter it outside of several known sites but included here out of sheer excitement, a yellow form of Common Snowdrop is also known up North. Known as Galanthus nivalis Sandersii Group, this Northumbrian speciality exhibits yellow as opposed to green markings and has leaves which are noticeably paler. It is a real beauty.


Beyond the native Wild Daffodil (Narcissus pseudonarcissus subsp. pseudonarcissus) I’m dreadful at daffodils. The great big lurid ones that frequently escape from cultivation especially. With hundreds of cultivars and a few species too, there are certainly lots out there to be discovered and feel inspired by Mick Crawley’s superb key, I wanted to take a look at some of those in the local area. Spoiler: I got them wrong but thankfully, Mick is extremely helpful on social media. I’ve only managed to find one so far…

Narcissus ‘Rijnveld’s Early Sensation

One of the hideously complicated ‘big yellow daffodils’ Narcissus ‘Rijnveld’s Early Sensation‘ is usually, according to Mick Crawley, the first cultivar to bloom each year. In the South, this can be as early as January. Up here, we have an entirely different climate and this cultivar is most likely to be spotted from mid-February it would seem.

With flower stems around 40cm tall, a flanged (I like that word) trumpet and slightly overlapping petals, it is a rather nice daffodil.

1 Comment

  1. Denzil says:

    Thanks, very useful. I guess it’s difficult these days to say whether it’s a wild crocus, snowdrop or daffodil and not a cultivated one. Especially as there are hybrids to consider too.

Leave a Reply