Archive Documents

Snowdrops: a small obsession

by Ann Uppington.

First published in our newsletter in 2016…

Outside Sue Swan’s former home in the village of Dunsyre you can see in February the results of her snowdrop planting, spilling out of the garden alongside the hedgerows. Sue planted Galanthus nivalis [Galanthus is Greek for Milk flower, nivalis is Latin, meaning ‘of the snow’.

The first snowdrops at Stonypath came from my parents’ garden at Newholm (like so much else). Every year I would divide them and spread them further. In Dunsyre there are the ruins of two little cottages beside the church – much over-grown and shaded by an enormous Sycamore or two – in those lost gardens there were hundreds of snowdrops in clumps – some of them the larger variety and some the double – as well as the plain ones. I dug clumps and re-planted them on the roadside verges as well as in the gardens of Shawfield and The Old Smithy and in the Wild Wood. Always leaving some behind of course.

Quote from Sue Swan. February 6 2016

At Little Sparta during February the same snowdrops Sue planted in the Front garden from 1966 onward have spread and multiplied. Snowdrops spread by division of little bulblets and in good years by pollen dispersal. They are a rash of tiny bell flowers set against the wet dark of the bare trees and their pure whiteness lifts the low light of late winter afternoons.

These little bulbs that please us so much are often the first sign of the spring after the turning of the year. Their nature is paradoxical and to some extent mysterious as snowdrops can turn up in unexpected places such as church yards, under brambles, on sites of abandoned houses, or they spread in large drifts along river banks and gather under old trees and ancient orchards. They are strangely feral but also of the garden and their life force is vigorous.

Snowdrops are contradictory: strong, yet they seem so delicate. Their leaves have thick and toughened acid tips that penetrate ice and snow and push up leaf masses, like small weight lifters so that in France the snowdrop is aptly called ‘pierce-neige’ – snow-piercer

The snowdrop has obscure origins: they could be native but we are not certain. They are certainly naturalized and we know they grew in Elizabethan gardens. The name ‘snowdrop’ was recorded for the first time at the end of the seventeenth century and the word’s origin is probably Swedish, ’snödroppe’ or the German Schneetropfen. The oldest reference to the snowdrop is in a glossary, dated 1465 – they are called ‘ Leucis i viola alba’ and were considered a form of narcissus. Sir Thomas Hanmer writes in 1659 of ‘ Bulbous violets’. Gerard’s Herbal refers to them as Leucoium Bulbosum praecox, which translates to ‘Timely Flowring Bulbus violet’.

The flower has many local aliases – Fair maids, Dewdrops, Dropping Bell. In some communities snowdrops are called Death’s Flower and a source of bad luck, but paradoxically they are also a symbol of purity and virginity when called by a different name – Candlemas Bells and are then gathered in bunches to celebrate Candlemas, the Feast of the Purification on 2 February.

In the winter and often well into spring Little Sparta is snow bound and Ian would despair that each year spring would not come and the trees would not leaf out. As late as April one year he could write ‘The buds on the bare trees look frightful, like a display of bolts in the icy air’, but in February he did have the snowdrops to cheer him up.

Ann Uppington