The sun is shining and drifts of snowdrops, “February’s Fairmaid”, are a joy. I have been preparing a very brief chat on snowdrops for the Friends of the Oxford Botanic Gardens who meet for coffee on the first Friday of the month. This prompted me to look up some of the legends associated with this most magical of winter flowers. For example did you know that snowdrops have been known as “Eve’s Tears” or “Eve’s Comforters”? Apparently poor Eve was weeping when she was cast out of the Garden of Eden and a friendly angel breathed on a tear and changed it to a snowdrop. They are linked to purity in the Catholic church and were traditionally carried in Candlemas processions which is why they are often found growing along the way to village churches.
In Greek mythology, Persephone brought back snowdrops from the underworld so they are linked to both death and, according to the language of flowers, hope- the emergence of the hardy snowdrop heralds spring and the start of a new year. The snowdrop may even have been the magical plant “Moly” that Hermes gave Odysseus to protect him from beautiful Circe’s magic. Snowdrops contain the centrally acting anticholinesterase, galanthamine, while Circe’s potions may have contained centrally acting anticholinergic toxins to induce amnesia in Odysseus’ crew (although I am not sure that includes turning them into swine- but perhaps they just thought they had become swine). Perhaps a snowdrop might have helped to vanquish Circe, but Odysseus also brought his sword.
I was pleased to read that, according to garden folklore, before moving a snowdrop, one should always tell it what is happening or it will not thrive- I am not the only gardener who chats to her plants. But I suspect my leaf mould and little bonemeal also help.
The taxonomy is complicated. There are at least 20 species of snowdrop and probably more than 2500 hybrids and cultivars. Identification depends on the morphology of both the leaves and the flowers and now DNA. My snowdrops are mainly types of nivalis (the Common snowdrop), plicatus (Crimean or Turkish snowdrop with broad dark green or greyish pleated leaves) or elwesii (Greater snowdrop with broad silver-grey leaves).
The first record of G. nivalis in this country is in John Gerard’s herbal (1597) and G. plicatus was brought back by soldiers returning from the Crimean war in the 1800s. One of these days the snowdrop market will surely crash, as with tulipmania in the 1600s. Many of the cultivars look pretty much identical, even when you “lift their skirts” to check out the green markings, and I am not sure for how long these fancy snowdrops will command ridiculous prices. One bulb sold for more than £1000 in 2019 on e-bay- crazy! However I am enjoying my growing collection and it is a delight to share my love with other enthusiasts who visit the garden- as well as with the early solitary bees, queen bumblebees and other emerging insects who need the snowdrop nectar and pollen.