Just as we long for the sight of the first summer swallow swooping overhead, or the distinctive call of the first cuckoo, so we await the appearance of the first snowdrop with a mixture of excitement and anticipation. Once seen we can be confident that our dark winter is nearing an end, and that Spring is around the corner.
Of course, it doesn’t always work out that way, but what the heck, it’s the hope and expectation that keep us going.
Snowdrops can be an early bonus for pollinating insects. A popular image beloved of wildlife photographers is capturing a honey bee or queen bumblebee visiting a snowdrop for an early foraging boost. The bumblebee in question is likely to be the buff-tailed bumblebee (Bombus terrestris) which, with a seemingly increasing ability to be active in winter, might hope to find Mahonia, winter-flowering honeysuckle or snowdrops in your garden.
One of the nice things about the ‘proper’ names for flowers is that they reveal so much. In the case of the snowdrop — Galanthus nivalis — we are talking ‘milk flower of the snow’. Now, how good is that at describing a seeming fragile white flower, set amid a wintry snowscape? Mind you other names are equally descriptive such as the English candlemass bells, the French perce-neige (snow piercer), and Spanish campanilla de la nieves (snow bell) as well as rompiendo la nieve (breaking the snow). Candlemass falls 40 days after Christmas and is a major date in the Christian calendar, although a less popular association with churches was that as snowdrops were often planted around graveyards for many folk they became associated with death.
In modern times the word ‘snowdrop’ acquired a more menacing meaning, albeit in a work of fiction. A thriller by A. D. Miller titled ‘Snowdrops’ was so called as his book suggested some Russians gave the name snowdrops to bodies that came to the surface when the snows thawed. His novel suggested a time when murder victims were likely to emerge from beneath receding snow drifts, like budding snowdrops.
We’ve had plenty of time to come up with descriptions of snowdrops. Although not native to the British Isles, the snowdrop was recorded in the wild as long ago as the 1770s and today there are reckoned to be hundreds of varieties, bred from several different species.
In general terms snowdrops are pretty unmistakable, no mean feat in the complex and uncertain world of plant identification. Generally they are anywhere between 7–15 cm tall, but always boast white bell-shaped flowers which droop downwards from a flower stem that rarely has more than a couple of exceedingly narrow leaves attached. The flowers tend to have six bright white segments and a green ‘v-shape’ pattern on the flower head is not uncommon. Probably the most likely confusion flower is its larger cousin the (less popular) snowflake.
And snowdrops are super popular. Amongst their aficionados, “galanthophiles”, snowdrop bulbs can change hands for significant sums. In one instance £1,390 was spent on a single ‘golden fleece’ bulb. Stan de Prato, in one of his consistently excellent plant updates for Keep Scotland Beautiful, once noted that “The highest price paid for a Scottish snowdrop was £725 for a yellow form of G. woronowii at an auction in 2012”.
There is some debate around how snowdrops reproduce. Some observers suggest that they can produce seeds if there are pollinators around, others advise that new bulbs grow attached to the mother bulb (so-called offsets). It may very well be that both methods apply, dependent on opportunity or conditions.
Where there are plants there are usually ancient medicinal uses. In the case of the snowdrop these are fairly mundane but included is a cure for headaches. Had you been a galanthophile and realised that in a fit of enthusiasm you had spent over £1,000 on a bulb you might have be tempted by that old resort. Don’t be, snowdrop bulbs are poisonous. That might explain why in some superstitious quarters snowdrops were seen as symbolising death and it was reckoned bad luck to take one into your home.
Back in February 2005 snowdrops were bad news for a group of plant thieves in Fife. Police intercepted a van containing stolen bulbs reckoned to be worth in the region of an eye-watering £60,000. Alan Stewart was the Tayside Police Officer dealing with wildlife crime at the time and was of the opinion that snowdrop thefts were a significant element of wildlife crime.
Around these parts snowdrops are best seen along riverbanks and in some of our woodlands. It’s a short window of sight-seeing for they tend to be gone by the end of February. Make the most of the opportunity, the snowdrop has a captivating quality and you might just catch a glimpse of a hungry pollinator into the bargain.