Snowdrops after a thawing frost. ©Shaun Barr 2023
“Chaste Snowdrop, venturous harbinger of Spring,
And pensive monitor of fleeting years!”
By the time January comes, when the darkness of winter seems to have dragged on for much longer than it actually has, you can start to see the most encouraging signs of new life just beginning to emerge and blossom. Snowdrops are once such arrival, and oh how we welcome these cheery pioneers!
Suspended on a single, bright-green stem, the teardrop-shaped flower elegantly hangs its white, bowing head, heralding the beginning of nature's remarkable transformation into new life.
Here in south Cumbria, as we approach the end of January, woodland edges and clearings are scattered with snowdrops, like striking white accents amid the muted tones of the rest of the now dulled landscape. The blooms are still tightly furled, with another week or so before most are likely to open. But even now, they are exquisitely beautiful, grouped confidently together, assured in their balletic balance and poise.
Apparently delicate and fragile, the truth is snowdrops are remarkably tough, and their prolific and uninhibited flowering - in the fiercest of blisteringly cold winds, ice, snow and hail - is testimony to their steely hardiness
Sublime beauty - snowdrops seen close up are breathtaking. ©Shaun Barr 2023
Most plant leaves are usually damaged or killed off in freezing conditions due to ice crystals forming in the cells. But the humble snowdrop carries ‘anti-freeze’ proteins, which inhibit the crystals from developing. Add to this the specially hardened leaf tips, which gives them the strength to push up through hard, frozen ground, and you begin to understand just how well prepared these little marvels are to tackle the worst of the winter weather head on.
The literal translation of the plant’s latin name, Galanthus nivalis, is ‘milk flower of the snow’. Native throughout Central and Southern Europe, snowdrops are naturalised here in the UK, and have been here for at least a few hundred years, most probably since the 1500s.
From tiny isolated clumps to large, thick spreading blankets that carpet the woodland floor, these intrepid pioneers which venture out en masse into winter's chill are a beautiful sight to behold.
As the climate changes, like so many plants, their flowering times have moved significantly earlier, especially during the last few decades: in the 1950s snowdrops would not usually bloom until late February. These days it’s not uncommon to find them in bloom just into the new year in warmer parts of the UK. (These images taken 28 January in Windermere, Cumbria).
“Lone Flower, hemmed in with snows and white as they
But hardier far, once more I see thee bend
Thy forehead, as if fearful to offend,
Like an unbidden guest.”
Steeped in folklore snowdrops are viewed as symbols of hope and purity. At the same time however, there has been much superstition surrounding this diminutive plant, a single flower quite often seen as a sign of impending death. It is considered bad luck for the flowers to be brought into houses; so much so that a Cumbrian lady who’s garden I used to tend in Troutbeck wouldn’t even entertain a snowdrop greetings card in her home.
Perhaps the snowdrop’s association with something sinister is due to the bulb’s poisonous content, an attribute that protects it from being dug up and eaten by deer or squirrels.
More positively, the plant contains the alkaloid galantamine, a substance which is used in medicine in the form of Reminyl – a treatment for the symptoms of Alzehimer’s disease.
Although some insect pollinators visit snowdrops the usually cold weather that occurs during their flowering period means they tend to rely on bulb division, the bulbs naturally splitting while dormant.
But fascinatingly, the seeds also have another method of dispersal. Ants are attracted to the tail-like appendage on the seed, which is called an elaiosome and is rich in fatty acids. When the seedpods open, ants carry the seeds away, taking them down into their nests as food for developing larvae. This allows the plants to become distributed further around the area.
Look out for snowdrops in woodlands and beneath hedgerows, as well as on the banks of rivers and streams.
You can read the rest of Wordsworth’s poem To A Snowdrop, here: