Galanthus nivalis, the common snowdrop, is also known as Candlemas bells, Snow piercer and Fair Maids of February, to name but a few. With so may common names it would seem obvious that the snowdrop is a wild flower in Britain but there is some doubt about this. They were not recorded as growing wild until the 1770s although they had been grown in gardens before this. Gerard calls them ‘Timely flouring bulbous Violet’ in his Herbal of 1597 and adds ‘These plants do grow wilde in Italy and the places adiacent. Notwithstanding our London gardens have taken possession of most of them many yeares past.’ In the revised edition of 1633, Thomas Johnson adds, ‘Some call them also Snowdrops.’
Linnaeus gave snowdrops the scientific name Galanthus, from the Greek gala meaning milk, and anthos, flower. The specific epithet, nivalis, refers to snow. It belongs to the family Amaryllidaceae and is native to a large area of Europe, from the Pyrenees to Ukraine, usually in deciduous woodland, often in humid areas near rivers and streams, and on deep, fertile, humus-rich soils. Galanthus nivalis received the RHS Award of Garden Merit in 1993.
There is very little evidence as to how and when snowdrops arrived here and how they spread so far and wide. It seems to be a matter of some conjecture and a great deal of debate. Their association with ecclesiastical buildings is clear as we see vast colonies in monastic sites and in churchyards. Stories, legends and superstitions abound and snowdrops seem to be woven into our culture so it is not surprising that this tiny white flower, which blooms in winter, has made its way into our Top 30.
As we watch them break through the cold earth in our gardens or go and marvel at the great white drifts in the woods, churchyards and large estates, we know that spring is on its way. It might be a long wait, as it’s been this year, or it might be just round the corner but it will eventually come.
By William Wordsworth
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. Though day by day,
Storms, sallying from the mountain-tops, waylay
The rising sun, and on the plains descend;
Yet art thou welcome, welcome as a friend
Whose zeal outruns his promise! Blue-eyed May
Shall soon behold this border thickly set
With bright jonquils, their odours lavishing
On the soft west-wind and his frolic peers;
Nor will I then thy modest grace forget,
Chaste Snowdrop, venturous harbinger of Spring,
And pensive monitor of fleeting years!