SNOWDROP (Galanthus nivalis)

This well-loved little flower is one of the earliest to bloom, and has the ability to cope with the coldest of weather – it is associated with snow not only in English, but also in Latin (“nivalis” means snowy), French (perce-neige), Italian (bucaneve) and German (Schneeglöckchen), for example. The brilliant white three outer petals probably reinforce this association. The three inner petals are variously marked in green.

Whether it is a true British native is debatable, and most of its colonies growing in the wild (like that in the photographs) are most likely garden escapes or deliberately planted. It seems that there is no documentary evidence of the name earlier than the late 16th century, and it is not recorded as growing wild before 1770. Snowdrops are often found in close proximity to religious establishments such as abbeys, and it is possible that they were introduced into this country from the near continent at some time during the medieval period. In the “language of flowers” they are symbols of purity, and in the Catholic church they represent Candlemas (2nd February – the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary).

In recent years there has been a growing interest in snowdrops among gardeners, and real enthusiasts (galanthophiles) will often pay large sums of money for the rarer varieties – a small-scale parallel to the “tulip-mania” of the 17th century! The Plant Finder lists some 20 species and over 150 varieties and hybrids; there are many more, but in some cases the differences between varieties are minute (the green markings on the inner petals are often the key), and it needs an expert to identify them. There are double forms, and even yellow ones. All are beautiful, but perhaps none more so than the “basic” Galanthus nivalis.

Image produced from the Ordnance Survey Get-a-map service.
Image reproduced by kind permission of Ordnance Survey
and Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland.

Text by George Metcalfe. Photos by Colin Wootton.