Candlemas bells, Mary’s taper, snow piercer, February fairmaids and Dingle-dangle. Nothing announces the arrival of Spring more serenely than the Snowdrop. The pure, virginal white flowers hang from fresh, lush green growth and blanket otherwise barren woodland carpets, town gardens and churchyards across the length and breadth of the United Kingdom as the first floral wash of colour of the new calendar year bursts into life.
Of course, if the past week is anything to go by, Spring still seems a long way off but nature has a way of awakening well ahead of our conscious acknowledgement. Sometimes called ‘Candlemas bells’ the Snowdrop typical emerges from the frost ravaged earth around the 2nd of February, Candlemas. I too associate Snowdrops with the beginning of February; bringing a pot indoors every year, usually around the 2nd, as my personal nod to my own beliefs; Imbolc, the beginning of Spring.
Individually, this diminutive plant is a thing of real beauty; the flower composed of six crisp white flower segments known as tepals (not petals!). The inner three tepals are smaller and have a notch in the tip, with a vivid green upturned ‘v’ pattern inside – visible only on closer, careful inspection thanks to the bell-shaped flowers nodding habit. For many of us the full beauty of the Snowdrop comes when stumbling upon dramatic vast swathes of plants all nestled together, flowering en masse, a sea-spray white ocean beneath a skeletal, sleepy wooded canopy of Silver Birch, Beech or Oak; the first signs of life on a woodland floor that has for so long been sullied by decay and bare earth.
These unassuming little flowers have long held a place in our hearts and our culture. Just as they have the strength to lift spirits, make poets swoon and bring gardeners lust, so too have they the strength to bloom when all else is still hanging on for warmer climes. They may appear dainty but Snowdrops are hard, determined plants; effortlessly pushing aside frozen soil and springing from the naked ground in abundance when sunlight is at its most sparse, year on year, regular as clockwork. Like many bulbous plants the bulbs are poisonous if ingested – another hard characteristic that helps ensure its survival – but far from just a beautiful plant, treasured in a whimsy, folklore notion, the Snowdrop continues to etch its mark upon the human race; in modern medicine a compound in the bulb of the snowdrop has been used to develop a revolutionary dementia treatment.
It is not just us that celebrate the arrival of the Snowdrops and harness their medicinal powers of recovery. At this time of year when a sudden rise in temperature can force a host of Bumblebees, Honey bees and Hoverflies to stir, often prematurely, the Snowdrop is an unimaginably vital source of nectar for these pioneering insects offering up a veritable feast when elsewhere natures plate is well and truly empty.
The early Spring Snowdrop is now so engrained in our British psyche that we often consider it ‘ours’; a great British scene in the great British countryside. It may come as a surprise then to find that the Snowdrop is not ours at all. Whilst the Snowdrop may have been adopted by almost every field-guide to wild flowers that I have had the pleasure to read, the truth is that it may not be a British wild flower at all. Snowdrops are actually relatively recent arrivals to the UK. It’s first known cultivation was in 1597 and was first recorded in the wild in 1778. The Snowdrop is, for all intents and purposes, a garden escapee. The plant has gradually naturalised over the centuries, in some areas forming huge ‘wild’ colonies unshaped by man’s hand and little, if anything, has changed in its structure or genetics. The Snowdrop is a native of much of the continent though, its range extending as far north as the damp woodlands and meadows of Brittany and there is some debate as to whether some particular Snowdrop colonies in the South West of England may be native, left over from a time when Brittany and Cornwall were adjoined, though this has not been confirmed by science just yet.
Whatever the reality, I’m not sure it matters. Woodland glades, church yards and stately gardens erupting with Snowdrops have been gazed upon across the Country for hundreds of years. The joy they bring and the sentiments that they represent are as alive today as they were in the 18th century and I suspect, or at least hope, that the arrival of Spring will be heralded up and down the land for years to come; all with the gentle, miraculous unfurling of the first February fairmaid.