Wednesday Weed – Snowdrop Revisited

Dear Readers, I hope you will forgive this cheekiness, but as I have been toiling away over a hot spreadsheet all day I figured that I could do with some snowdrops, and you probably could as well. I have a tiny clump emerging under the whitebeam tree in the garden, but it’s too dark and rainy to take a photo of the blooming (literally!) things so that will need to wait until the weather is a bit more clement.

I also wanted to alert you to the fact that the Devon Snowdrop festival, which usually attracts thousands of visitors, is now online due to the lockdown. I have been thoroughly enjoying it on Facebook and rumour has it that it’s also on the new-fangled Instagram.I often think that I should post there, but keeping up with the blog generally plus Facebook plus (very occasionally) Twitter is quite enough social-media-ing for one person, although there are some wonderful things to see. 

And finally, tomorrow is my birthday, and I plan to make myself a cake, though I shall hold fire on the 61 candles that it would require. I am thinking orange and almond, but chocolate is also calling. Maybe I could combine the two :-). What do you think, Readers? Let me know your favourite cake so that I can be inspired. Snowdrops in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery (Galanthus nivalis)

Snowdrops in St Pancras and Islington Cemetery (Galanthus nivalis)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.

IMG_1353This 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.

IMG_1359Some 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.

St George's Churchyard, Near Damerham, Hampshire, UK ( © Copyright Miss Steel and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.)

St George’s Churchyard, Near Damerham, Hampshire, UK ( © Copyright Miss Steel and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.)

IMG_1354I 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.

IMG_1363The 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.

IMG_1355In 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.

Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus, by John William Waterhouse. Note the tell-tale pig on the right hand side. Just as well Odysseus has his Snowdrops!

Circe Offering the Cup to Odysseus, by John William Waterhouse.

Snowdrops at Welford Park, Berkshire ("Welford Park Snowdrops 1" by Chris Wood (User:chris_j_wood). - Photograph by myself with original filename DCP_3674.JPG. Unmodified.. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

Snowdrops at Welford Park, Berkshire (“Welford Park Snowdrops 1” by Chris Wood (User:chris_j_wood). – Photograph by myself with original filename DCP_3674.JPG. Unmodified.. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons )

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.

"Snowdrop 'Viridi-Apice'" by Schnobby - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -

“Snowdrop ‘Viridi-Apice'” by Schnobby – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons –



9 thoughts on “Wednesday Weed – Snowdrop Revisited

  1. Fran & Bobby Freelove

    There’s not a nicer sight to see than snowdrops emerging on a dull, wintry day. We have masses coming through and even some in flower. On our daily walk there are two really big clumps, interesting to know how they got there. We know there are galanthophiles out there but to us galanthus nivalis is by far the most beautiful. Happy Birthday for tomorrow from us both and enjoy your cake whatever it is 🎂

  2. Liz Norbury

    Happy birthday! My celebration cake of choice is a Tunis cake, as I love the combination of mild Madeira cake, rich chocolate, and a cheerful topping of pink and yellow icing and marzipan fruits. I know it’s traditionally a Christmas cake, but it works just as well for birthdays. There’s a good recipe here – – although (speaking as a chocoholic) I would leave the butter out of the chocolate topping, so that it’s pure chocolate! There isn’t a photo of the cake on this website, although there is one here – – along with a Mary Berry recipe, but this isn’t as good as the other one.

    I saw my first snowdrops of the season in the garden of my mum’s care home yesterday. A few years ago, I interviewed the Cornish snowdrop expert Alison O’Connor, who has around 70 different varieties in her garden near Truro – it’s sometimes open to the public in February, but sadly (and understandably) not this year. The National Trust’s Trengwainton Garden, west of Penzance, is carpeted with snowdrops from late January, and I’m waiting to hear if it’s going to open as planned on 7th February.

    1. Bug Woman Post author

      Trengwainton is owned by my husband’s relatives the Bolithos – his Dad went to Canada in the fifties but the Cornish Bolithos are still there!

      1. Liz Norbury

        Wow, I didn’t know you had such grand connections! I used to be a volunteer garden guide at Trengwainton – as well as writing about the garden on several occasions – so I know it well. As you probably know, the Bolithos also own Trewidden, another wonderful garden near Penzance.

      2. Bug Woman Post author

        Isn’t it a small world? The Canadian Bolithos are rather less grand than the Cornwall Bolithos – John’s Dad was a civil engineer working on dams and power stations and such. Such a lovely man.

      3. Bug Woman Post author

        The Bolithos are all over Cornwall to be sure….they had a bank that they sold in 1908 to Barclays which explains some of the grand houses.

  3. Anne

    Glorious scenes of snowdrops stretching out to greet the spring! I hope your birthday will be a happy one and that you will experience as much joy as the year ahead has to give. As for cakes, the older I grow the less I enjoy sponge cakes – I prefer fruit cake. Nonetheless, one cannot go wrong with a carrot cake – my second favourite kind.

    1. Bug Woman Post author

      I like fruit cake at Christmas, but somehow it doesn’t suit at other times of the year. Funny isn’t it, the rituals and routines that we get into?


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