Snowdrops – true natives of much of mainland Europe but garden plants in Britain – have gone wild on a woodland edge near my home. The clumps or even carpets of brilliant white brighten a country walk on even the dullest of winter days. I’ve noticed that we have not only the plain and simple form, in which three petals hang down like milk droplets (hence the Latin Galanthus, meaning ‘milk-white flowers’), but appear in some fancy and strange-looking guises, too.
Apparently, trying to identify all the different snowdrop cultivars takes a lot of time, patience and specialist research, so let’s just look into the ‘faces’ of these little wonders for the sake of delight rather than scientific categorization.
As we’ll be discovering with wood anemones in the spring (see a future article: ‘Anemone Anomalies’), even the flowers of exactly the same species, cultivated or not, can look quite individual.
In our local woods, cultivated varieties of daffodils are starting to emerge from the banks along the fields as the snowdrops flower. This suggests to me that both snowdrops and daffodils were both grown in the Tamar Valley’s former market gardening boom. Someone told me the other evening that when the fields were given over to cattle grazing instead of market gardening, the bulbs were dug up and chucked away into the hedges. This would explain a lot!
Snowdrops look rather good from above, but they are even better if you take the trouble to get down to ground level, where so many interesting things live without us noticing them properly. Once kneeling down, almost at ground level, you may now be marvelling at not only snowdrops, but other little ensembles of youthful shoots emerging from hidden bulbs, corms and tubers underground. Before spring has taken hold, new plants push through the rain-sodden soil and pierce the fragile mats of last year’s skeletal leaves like shiny green spears. But the time of spring glory is still to come, so let’s go back to the snowdrops. Once you look into that gorgeous green centre, you fall in love and are surely tempted to become a galanthophile.
But some clumps have gone awry. Their individual flowers seem to be striving for flamboyant, asymmetrical individuality. Here is an example. They can also look a bit scruffy if they’ve been nibbled by something, but don’t try this yourself. Although they may be useful in medicine for Alzheimer’s, snowdrops are poisonous and should not be mistaken for alliums!
The original reason for the different flower shapes and plant heights will no doubt have been human intervention – the flower breeders of old seeking new varieties. In Victorian and Edwardian times, there was much public fascination with the intricacies of the living world. Flowers were given meanings – an old custom from the Middle East – and were central to courtship in what could be a strict and repressed society. Nosegays or tussie-mussies, posies and buttonholes were given liberally, while collections of plants were amassed in the well-to-do houses and gardens of Britain.
Those too busy for such fripperies, having been working long hours to scrape a living in and around the mines of the Tamar Valley, suddenly found themselves blinking in the sunlight following the demise of local mining for minerals such as copper, tin and arsenic. These working people left their dark, dangerous, claustrophobic nether world at a time before social security existed for the unemployed, and many emigrated in search of other mines. Although the landscape around the mines must have been wrecked and littered with spoil heaps, the wider Tamar Valley countryside was wooded. When local people thought of using the sunniest slopes for market gardening, and the railways offered a way of transporting fresh fruits and flowers to London, they used explosives (I guess readily available due to the mining) on the oak woodland – neither the first nor the last time that people have obliterated their natural surroundings in a drastic way to generate a much-needed income.
Snowdrops flower early, so they have a chance to bathe in sunlight before trees are in leaf, and before taller, thicker vegetation takes over. Early flowers are useful for the first bumblebees of spring – queens emerging early to scout around for nest sites. However, snowdrops are able to spread by bulb division as well as pollination. (They are available to buy, so don’t collect them from the wild, as it’s a bad idea to deplete wildflowers anyway, and they have legal protection through the CITES treaty.)
The ‘nivalis’ part of their name means ‘of the snow’, and snowdrops seem unaffected by a covering of snow – something we still see now and then in the Tamar Valley area of Cornwall and Devon, although they do seem to like our damp soil and show up much better against the more usual winter mud!