“… And thus the snowdrop, like the bow
That spans the cloudy sky,
Becomes a symbol whence we know
That brighter days are nigh; …”
‘Origin of the snowdrop’ –George Wilson
Snowdrop; Fair Maid of February; Bulbous Violet
The snowdrops bloomed last Sunday February 2, right in tune with Imbolc/Candlemass – the halfway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox – heralding the celebration of spring’s soon return. Accompanied by the hellebores, snowdrops are the first flowers to bloom here at The Green Farmacy Garden after most of winter is behind us, announcing that spring is right around the corner. Their iridescent gems dapple the woods behind the pond and down the trail beyond the old shed, coaxing exploration and enjoyment. They encircle Jim Duke’s old chair down by the woods stream in a verdant embrace adorned in light drops; a solitary place of hopeful contemplation and content.
snowdrops encircling Jim’s chair by the stream
It’s an amazement how their dainty, delicate stems are strong and persistent enough to push up through the frozen ground and pierce the layers of leaves to bless us with their simple beauty. It’s no wonder the snowdrops have been revered as a sign of hope, patience, and endurance by many cultures around the world for centuries. They are also spoken of as shy, humble flowers, as signified by their drooping blossoms. This posture has come to be realized as an attribute to keep the dusty pollen dry and protected from the winds, rains and snows of February. As there are few insects awake to help pollinate this time of year, the bowing heads of snowdrops are also to ensure their soft scent stays sweet and detectable.
This snowdrop’s botanical name is Galanthus nivalis. The Greek ‘gala’ is the word for ‘milk’ and ‘anthos’ the word for flower, while ‘nivalis’ is Latin for ‘snowy/growing in or near snow’. Thus Galanthus nivalis can be poetically translated to “milkflower of the snow”. The Welsh name for snowdrops is Eirlys meaning ‘snow lily’. Galanthus nivalis are native to the mountainous alpine regions of mainland Europe and Southwest Asia, where the winters are cold and harsh. The quaint flowers favor shady, moist areas such as woodlands. Snowdrops are perennial bulbs of the family Amaryllidaceae hardy in USDA zones 3-7. The Amaryllidaceae family is, aptly named, the Amaryllis family, of which members are typically perennial plants that resprout yearly from their underground bulbs. Daffodils, onions, and lilies are also members of this family. There are 15 species of the genus Galathus, 2 of which have naturalized in (mostly) north eastern United States- Galanthus nivalis and Galanthus elwesii. Galanthus bulbs grow in compact masses of shiny green, pointed leaves, well adapted to pierce through moist leaves and snow layers. Each mass of thin, arrow-like leaves protects a single stem topped with one flower. Snowdrop flowers stay open a long time, stretching their petals ever wider with each passing day.
At The Green Farmacy Garden, Galanthus nivalis can be found in the Alzheimer’s plot. The alkaloid galantamine was first isolated from Galanthus and has been used to treat Alzheimer’s, neuritis, and neuralgia. Galantamine has been found to help prevent the breakdown of acetylcholine, which is a neurotransmitter necessary for healthy brain function and memory. This theory that the breakdown of acetylcholine is the cause of Alzheimer’s was the prevailing thought when the garden was founded over 20 years ago. While new theories have developed since this time, the exact cause of Alzheimer’s is still unknown. Though the isolated alkaloid of Galanthus is made into pharmaceutical medicine, all parts of Galanthus nivalis are toxic and poisonous to eat.
Despite their raw toxicity, snowdrops have been cherished by our ancestors for their symbolism of hope, endurance, persistence, and the lengthening of daylight. A potent reminder that beauty is just as healing and nourishing as medicine herbs and food. Taking time to be still, observe, and be held in wonderment humbles and fuels our souls with hope.
‘She calls up the first snowdrop’ : Ida Rentoul Outhwaite
“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!”
-excerpt from ‘The Snowdrop’ by Hans Christian Anderson
The following is an ancient German tale that speaks to the graciousness of snowdrops:
“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 jealously 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.”
A little kindness goes a long way. Take care of me I’ll take care of you. It takes a village.
“Alluding to the colour of the flowers.
The snow-drop, Winter’s timid child,
Awakes to life bedew’d with tears;
And flings around its fragrance mild,
And where no rival flowrets bloom,
Amidst the bare andd chilling gloom,
A beauteous gem appears!”
–The Language of Flowers (1839)
The snowdrops also appear in a Christian tale of creation that Scottish poet George Wilson depicted in his poem “Origin of the snowdrop”. The tale starts as Adam and Eve hold hands in tearful shame walking away from Eden after they are exiled. The snows start swirling around them nipping their extremities with frost. An Angel appears feeling sorry for them, and with the freshly fallen snow cupped in hand, The Angel breathes upon it and the first snowdrop flowers were born. The Angel offers the dainty pearly blossoms to Adam and Eve as a sign of hope, endurance, persistence, and humility for their kind into the world beyond. Below is George Wilson’s retelling of this tale:
Origin of the snowdrop
No fading flowers in Eden grew,
Nor Autumn’s withering spread
Among the trees a browner hue,
To show the leaves were dead;
But through the groves and shady dells,
Waving their bright immortal bells,
Were amaranths and asphodels,
Undying in a place that knew
A golden age the whole year through.
But when the angel’s fiery brands,
Guarding the eastern gate,
Told of a broken law’s commands,
And agonies that came too late;
With longing, lingering wish to stay,
And many a fond but vain delay
That could not wile her grief away,
Eve wandered aimless o’er a world
On which the wrath of God was hurled.
Then came the Spring’s capricious smile,
And Summer sunlight warmed the air,
And Autumn’s riches served a while
To hide the curse that lingered there;
Till o’er the once untroubled sky
Quick driven clouds began to fly,
And moaning zephyrs ceased to sigh,
When Winter’s storms in fury burst
Upon a world indeed accurst,
And when at last the driving snow,
A strange, ill-omened sight,
Came whitening all the plains below,
To trembling Eve it seemed affright
With shivering cold and terror bowed
As if each fleecy vapour cloud
Were falling as a snowy shroud,
To form a close enwrapping pall
For Earth’s untimeous funeral.
Then all her faith and gladness fled,
And, nothing left but black despair.
Eve madly wished she had been dead,
Or never born a pilgrim there.
But, as she wept, an angel bent
His way adown the firmament,
And, on a task of mercy sent,
He raised her up, and bade her cheer
Her drooping heart, and banish fear;
And catching, as he gently spake,
A flake of falling snow,
He breathed on it, and bade it take
A form and bud and blow;
And ere the flake had reached the earth,
Eve smiled upon the beauteous birth,
That seemed, amid the general dearth
Of living things, a greater prize
Than all her flowers in Paradise.
“This is an earnest, Eve, to thee,”
The glorious angel said,
“That sun and Summer soon shall be;
And though the leaves seem dead,
Yet once again the smiling Spring,
With wooing winds, shall swiftly bring
New life to every sleeping thing;
Until they wake, and make the scene
Look fresh again, and gaily green.”
The angel’s mission being ended,
Up to Heaven he flew;
But where he first descended,
And where he bade the earth adieu,
A ring of snowdrops formed a posy
Of pallid flowers, whose leaves, unrosy,
Waved like a winged argosy,
Whose climbing masts above the sea,
Spread fluttering sail and streamer free.
And thus the snowdrop, like the bow
That spans the cloudy sky.
Becomes a symbol whence we know
That brighter days are nigh;
That circling seasons, in a race
That knows no lagging, lingering pace,
Shall each the other nimbly chase,
Till Time’s departing final day
Sweep snowdrops and the world away.
George Wilson (1818–59)
A short fairy tale
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.
from “Land of the Happy Hours” by Stella Mead
– first pub: James Nisbet & Co. Ltd 1929