Snowdrops, hope flowers are one of the first flowers to appear in the new year. They are symbolic of spring, purity and religion.
The snowdrop flower’s message is typically positive, signifying hope, rebirth and a bright future.
by Mary Vivian
I like to think
That, long ago,
There fell to earth
Some flakes of snow
Which loved this cold
Grey world of ours
So much, they stayed
As snowdrop flowers.
From January to March – depending on regions and the weather – tt’s snowdrop season when carpets of snowdrops in woodlands, meadows and gardens signal the end of winter and the promise of spring.
There are more than 2,500 varieties of snowdrop. They vary in height from 7cm to 30cm and are divided into approximately 20 species.
There are snowdrop gardens throughout the UK. Many large gardens open in February, for visitors to witness the snowdrop season.
Snowdrop’s scientific name is Gallanthus. This means ‘milk flower.’
Known by several different names, it was officially named the Galanthus in 1753, by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus.
The name snowdrop does not mean ‘drop’ of snow, it means drop as in eardrop – the old word for earring. In the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries women often wore dangly, white drop-shaped earrings known as ‘eardrops.’
Snowdrops have aquired many folk names over the last few centuries, some reflecting their appearance, some the superstitions associated with them, some their unusual winter flowering habit and some their identity with the spiritual calendar. Some other common names of snowdrops are: Fair Maids of February, Candlemas Bells, White Ladies, Little Sister of the Snows, Snow Piercers, Dingle-Dangle, Flower of Hope, Christ’s Flower, Death’s Flower, Dew-drops, Drooping heads, Drooping Lily, Purification Flower, Snow-bells, Snow-flower, White-bells, White-cups, White Ladies, White Purification, White Queen.
Snowdrops contain a natural antifreeze. Even if they collapse in freezing weather they recover once the temperature rises. When temperatures reach 10C (50F) and above, the outer petals open up revealing the nectar inside. When the temperature drops the petal shield closes and protects the nectar. Nature is rather magical as this is perfect for bumble bees which come out of hibernation when the temperature rises above 10C!
Snowdrop pollen and nectar is an early spring feast for many bees.
Snowdrops and their bulbs are poisonous to humans. Some people have mistaken their bulbs for onions or shallots but they would have to eat an awfully lot of them to be fatal.
Snowdrops are used in medicine to help people. Galamantine extracted from snowdrops is now used in a treatment to slow down dementia in Alzheimer’s disease. It may be effective in treating diseases of the nervous system.
Collecting snowdrop bulbs in the wild is illegal in many countries. Although there are gardens and woodlands where we can see thousands and thousands of snowdrops, they are endangered and even under threat of extinction in some countries where they naturally grow in the wild. This is because too many were dug up to sell to gardeners across the world. Since 1995 international trade has been banned unless you have a special license.
During World War 2, the U.S. Military Police were given the nickname ‘snowdrops’ by British civilians. This was because their olive green uniforms with white cap or helmet and white gloves made them resemble snowdrops.
Galanthophiles are everywhere! This is the name given to those who like snowdrops. There are even regional events, where galanthophiles can buy bulbs for the different varieties. Special new ‘mutant’ varieties are sold for huge sums of money. One bulb called Gallanthus plicatus ‘Golden Fleece’ was sold for £1,390 pounds sterling. Some of these collectable bulbs are so precious they are kept locked up or watched over by security guards. As a result of this Galanthomania – snowdrop craze – there are snowdrop galas and special events held worldwide attended by Galanthophiles.
“Welcome, welcome!” sang and sounded every ray, and the Flower lifted itself up over the snow into the brighter world.
The Sunbeams caressed and kissed it, so that it opened altogether, white as snow, and ornamented with green stripes. It bent its head in joy and humility.
“Beautiful Flower!” said the Sunbeams, “how graceful and delicate you are! You are the first, you are the only one! You are our love! You are the bell that rings out for summer, beautiful summer, over country and town. All the snow will melt; the cold winds will be driven away; we shall rule; all will become green, and then you will have companions, syringas, laburnums, and roses; but you are the first, so graceful, so delicate!”
Extract from ‘The Snowdrop’ by Hans Christian Anderson
Legends and Myths about Snowdrops
Not all cultures view the snowdrop as a symbol of hope and rebirth. For the Victorians, the snowdrop represented death and even it considered bad luck to bring snowdrops inside the home. The sight of a single snowdrop bloom was considered unlucky and even meant there would be a death soon. That’s why it’s known sometimes as the ‘death-flower’.
Garden of Eden
The flower is a symbol of hope. According to legend, the snowdrop became the symbol of hope when Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden. When Eve was about to give up hope that the cold winters would never end, an angel appeared. She transformed some of the snowflakes into snowdrop flowers, proving that the winters do eventually give way to the spring.
When God created snow, he gave it the task of visiting the flowers of the earth to gather colors. All the flowers refused, until the snow visited the gentle snowdrop. Seeing that the snowdrop was a kind and generous soul, the snow decided to make a deal. In exchange for her color, the snow agreed to allow the snowdrop to bloom first every spring. The delicate snowdrop agreed and cheerfully blooms amid the snow each spring.
According to Moldovan legend, a fight between the Winter Witch and Lady Spring gave birth to the snowdrop. One year, the Winter Witch decided that she would not give up her reign of the earth when Lady Spring arrived. During the ensuing battle, Lady Spring pricked her finger and a drop of her blood fell to the earth. The blood drop melted the snow and up sprung a tiny snowdrop, a sign that Lady Spring had won the battle with the Winter Witch.
According to this legend, each year the sun took on the form of a young girl as it returned to warm the land in the spring. One year, Winter refused to let go of his stronghold on the earth and took the young girl hostage. A Hero soon appeared to rescue his love from the grips of winter. A battle ensued, and the girl was set free, but not before Hero was wounded. As the sun began to rise into the sky, Hero fell to the ground and drops of his blood stained the earth. Tiny snowdrops burst forth in celebration of the return of spring.
Romanians continue to honor the snowdrop as a symbol of the return of spring. It is still a tradition at the Mârtisor Festival, for a woman to receive a charm, worn for good luck, which is some form of red and white threads which are twisted together (see image at left), sometimes with tiny red and white dolls attached.
A fairy tale
from “Land of the Happy Hours” by Stella Mead
How the Snowdrops Came
Fairies are never allowed to stray out of Fairyland during the winter-time. But when spring comes they may dance and play in the woods and meadows of the earth as long as they please, and at night they may sleep out in the wood, curled up in a bluebell or a buttercup.
There was once a fairy called Silver Wing, who grew tired of waiting for the spring-time. One day early in February she whispered a secret to her playmates.
She was going to run away from Fairyland and see what the earth looked like in winter-time. Her little friends said it would be great fun to go with her. As soon as supper was over the naughty little fairies slipped away in the dusk until they came to the first wood outside Fairyland. For a long time they played there, looking very gay and pretty in their green silk frocks and white bonnets. But at last they crept into a bed of ivy leaves and went to sleep.
When they awoke in the morning the ground was covered with soft snow, and a man whose coat was trimmed with hoar-frost, and whose cap had a border of glistening icicles, stood before them.
The little fairies all felt quite frightened when they saw him. They trembled so that even their teeth chattered, for they knew that he was Jack Frost, and he was stern.
“I don’t allow fairies to come here during the winter-time.” he said angrily. “Why couldn’t you keep away until ‘Bluebell-time’?”
To punish them for their naughtiness he turned them into flowers and kept them prisoners for three weeks and a day.
Then he allowed them to go home; but every February they have to return for a few weeks, and the children of the earth call them snowdrops.