Snowdrops, signs of spring

160306 Snowdrop single blogsizeThey say that Shetland can experience four seasons in one hour, let alone in one day. Depending on whether one’s out of the wind this weekend it’s variously felt like a pleasant summer’s day or the bitterest depths of winter. Typical spring weather, really – mostly sunny but occasionally snowing.

Appropriately then that my snowdrops have chosen this weekend to start to bloom. I brought bulbs here with me from my Kentish cottage all those years ago, and they’re happily naturalised in a small paddock beside the house. Planted as single bulbs scattered across the field each has multiplied into a small clump over the years.

They’re my favourite flower of spring – less brash than daffodils, and the first bulb to flower. (Here in the north our winter hasn’t been quite as topsy-turvy as that in the south of England this year, so we’ve not had daffodils flowering in December…)

In the past couple of decades they’ve become quietly fashionable. The great, flamboyant plantsman Christopher Lloyd derided their followers as galanthobores; given how colourful his gardens at Great Dixter were, it’s small wonder he had little patience for the subtle variations cherished in these unassuming glaucous-leaved white-bloomed flowers by their galanthophile fans.

Those fans pay big money for rare and subtle variations on the basic snowdrop theme. In 2011 one galanthophile paid £350 for a single bulb of Galanthus plicatus ‘EA Bowles’ bred by the head gardener at Colesbourne Park. Christopher Lloyd would be spinning in his grave.

160306 Snowdrop clump blogsizeThey were first mentioned by name – snowdrop – in Thomas Johnson’s 1633 edition of Gerard’s ‘Herball‘. The etymology of snowdrop is clouded with mystery and threaded with conjecture. Some think the name comes from a style of ear-ring fashionable in Germany in the 16th and 17th centuries, Schneetropfen; certainly the German name for them nowadays – Schneeglockchen – sounds similar to an English speaker. The Swedish name is almost the same as ours – snodroppe – but it’s the French name that’s the most beautiful: perce-neiges sounds every bit as beautiful as the flowers themselves look.

That beauty is deceptive – the bulbs are packed with alkaloid poisons: galantamine, glycosidescillaine and narcissine. The lectin in snowdrops has been synthesised into something approaching spider venom for use as an insecticide in commercial tomato crops; less terminally, galantamine has been used to slow early onset Alzheimer’s Disease.

They’re often found in churchyards, chilly markers of graves. Many consider them unlucky if picked and brought into the house; some even contend that cut snowdrops in the home presage a death in the immediate family. Ted Hughes had their measure:

Brutal as the stars of this month, 

Her pale head hung heavy as metal.

For all their simple beauty, they’re complicated. Beautiful things often are, it seems.

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