Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..
For me, the sight of the first snowdrops of spring is like a long drink of cold water after a hot, dusty walk. The dazzling white flowers and the fresh green-grey foliage seem fresh and toothsome, as delicious as the first asparagus.
This is especially true in a woodland setting, and in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery there are a number of unkempt, wild areas, where the graves have become overgrown with moss and lichen. Here, the Snowdrops have naturalised, creating a wash of white that glows in the dim spaces.
Some vernacular names for the Snowdrop include February Fairmaids, Candlemas Bells and, my own particular favourite, Snow Piercer. This last has a fine Saxon edge to it, as if the plant were a well-loved sword. And yet, there is much debate over whether it is a native plant or naturalised. The answer is probably that it is both. As Richard Mabey points out in Flora Britannica, it is native to Continental Europe, and grows wild in northern Brittany, so it may be that the colonies in the south-west of England are native, arriving while the UK was still part of the European mainland, while those elsewhere are the result of garden escapes, albeit from hundreds of years ago. The Snowdrop has long been associated with purity, and may have been deliberately planted in monastery gardens and churchyards.
I have found Snowdrops extremely difficult to grow in my garden, and I have the feeling that they are not a hundred percent at home in our climate. They emerge too early for most pollinating insects, which makes sense if you consider that they probably come from an area with warmer winters and earlier springs. Because of this, they spread by division of the bulbs, rather than by seed. Many cultivated varieties are also sterile. Chelsea Physic Garden runs Snowdrop Days during February, to show off the sheer variety of cultivars: to read the Gentle Author’s account of a visit, and to see photos of some of them, have a look here.
The Latin name for the Snowdrop genus, Galanthus, means ‘milk-flower’, and the nivalis species name means ‘of the snow’. So, even if you had never seen a snowdrop you would have the definite impression that it was white. And such a white! But each flower also has exquisite green markings on the petals, and also inside the flower itself.
In Homer’s ‘The Odyssey’, a priestess, Circe, turns Odysseus’s crew into pigs. To protect against her enchantments, Odysseus is given the plant Moly by Hermes, and there is some agreement that Moly was, in fact, the Snowdrop. One theory is that the transformation of the crew was a metaphor for the euphoria and hallucinations induced by plants such as Deadly Nightshade and Datura. It just so happens that the Snowdrop contains a chemical called Galantamine, which can counteract the effects of these plants. I love the way that story and science mix here, as they so often do. In the painting below, Circe is offering Odysseus a nice refreshing drink, though the pig on her left-hand side is something of a warning. Just as well Odysseus has his Snowdrop to protect him.
Because of their association with purity, the flowers were sometimes used in Victorian times to warn off over-passionate lovers – a few Snowdrops in an envelope might be enough to dampen a young man’s ardour. But Snowdrops have also been considered unlucky, and in some parts of the UK a single flower is still seen as a death-token, perhaps because, as Mabey explains, Victorians felt that the flower looks ‘for all the world like a corpse in its shroud’. But to me, the bloom looks more like a beautiful white and green moth, and, coming from Bugwoman, there is no higher praise.