A tiny, fragile milk-flower clustered resolutely in the bitter and frosted winter’s soil - bringer of hope to some yet loathed by so many. Believed by some to have been brought to England by monks, the humble Snowdrop hails from the mountainous Alpine regions where the world is much colder and winters much harsher. Today, although not native to this country it’s commonly found in the British Isles, rearing it’s pearly head in time to coincide with celebration of Imbolc/Candlemass around the beginning of February;
‘The snowdrop, in purest white arraie,
First rears her hedde on Candlemas daie.
While the Crocus hastens to the shrine
Of Primrose lone on St Valentine.’
-an excerpt from an Old English floral calendar dating back to the 19th century.
One of my preferred folklores that surrounds the plant is an ancient German tale;
At the beginning of all things when life was new, the Snow sought to borrow a colour. The flowers were much admired by all the elements but they guarded their colour’s jealousy and when the Snow pleaded with them, they turned their backs in contempt for they believed the Snow cold and unpleasant. The tiny humble snowdrops took pity on the Snow for none of the other flowers had shown it any kindness and so they came forth and offered up to the Snow their colour.
The Snow gratefully accepted and became white forevermore, just like the Snowdrops. In its gratitude, the Snow permitted the little pearly flowers the protection to appear in winter, to be impervious to the ice and bitter chill. From then on, the Snow and the Snowdrops coexisted side by side as friends.
Fascinating little flowers, according to hearsay the plants are able to generate their own heat, however, there’s little in the way of proof. Known to have medicinal properties, the Galanthus nivalis currently being used in treatment for Alzheimer's. Their Latin name is dreadfully pretty as it translates as ‘Milkflower of the snow’ - this is possibly my favourite variant on the name as well as a Welsh word for them, ‘Eirlys’ which translates as ‘Snow Lilly.’
A much-adored sight around the bleak late winter days in modern day Britain, the ‘Fair Maid of February’ as they are also known, favour shady areas such as woodlands and are perhaps most notably and somewhat grimly found clustered upon graves and carpeting the floors of Britain’s churchyards. Perhaps this is the reason for some darker lore that surrounds the Snowdrops; for some say that they are an omen of death.
In Victorian superstition, it’s told that you must never bring the Snowdrop into the house for that will bring ill-fortune and in some more extreme versions of the tale, death will occur in the family within the year. Many cling to and practice this superstition still claiming resolutely that a plucked snowdrop brought upon their threshold was the reason they were widowed. Other old English superstitions dictate that by bringing in a Snowdrop, the milk will turn sour and eggs shall spoil. I’d rather not believe that picking this beautiful little flower would be a bringer of ills and sadness, however it’s most probably for the best that it’s not plucked from its roots and taken indoors where it’ll only wither but instead left with its fellows, creating a wondrous blanket of white across the woodlands and churchyards.
Better than a bringer of death is the flower’s associations as a bringer of hope and purity; the green coloured stem of the snowdrop symbolises and links with the Pagan ideals of health and wellbeing whilst the white symbolises the light of the winter sun which is now beginning to grow stronger as the days lengthen.
One of the most popularly documented stories surrounding the origins of the Snowdrop is actually a Christian creation tale. It tells of the moments following Adam & Eve’s exile from the garden of Eden where hopeless and dejected, they shiver as the snows swirl around them and the frost bites at their toes. An Angel descends from the Heavens to relate the message that Eden is no longer their privilege and that they must swiftly move on. Frightened and awed by the Angel and apprehensive of the nameless world that lies beyond, Adam and Eve take each other's hand and wander towards the unfamiliar and cruel new lands, heads bowed and tearful.
It is here that the Angel feels deep sorrow in his heart so he reaches out a hand where the soft snowfall lands in its perfect kaleidoscope of shapes, twinkling crystals in his palm; perfect and unmelting. The Angel brings the snowflakes to his face and breaths upon them, transforming the glittering ice into soft, pearly flowers; the first Snowdrops. “Take these little flowers,” says the Angel to Adam and Eve, “take them as a sign of hope. A sign for your kind and for the earth outside.” The Angel casts the tiny flowers into a halo that surrounds the two people and they carry this blessing of hope with them out into the world beyond.
Whether you believe the many dark superstitions that surround this flower or not, you cannot deny that it is a messenger of the seasons, that the darkest moment of winter has passed and that there are happenings of life in the roots beneath the earth; spring is imminent.
The Scottish poet George Wilson concludes his poem ‘The Origin of the snowdrop’ with the lines;
"And thus the snowdrop, like the bow
That spans the cloudy sky,
Becomes a symbol whence we know
That brighter days are nigh ; ”