February is the month we associate with snowdrops, scientific name Galanthus which is Greek for ‘milk flower’.
It is a common flower across Europe, introduced to the UK in the sixteenth century, and is a welcome sign of spring. Their seeds are particularly tasty to ants, this is how snowdrops are spread. Or gardeners can dig them up after flowering to separate some bulbs to transplant elsewhere. Snowdrops also provide nectar for bumblebees and other insects waking from hibernation. They thrive in deciduous woodland, flowering before the leaf canopy is formed to make the most of the winter sunlight.
An alternative name for snowdrops is Candlemas bells, as they tend to appear at the start of February to coincide with the Christian festival of light. In Pagan times this was the festival of Imbolc, half way between the winter and spring equinoxes. This was a fire festival celebrated by lighting candles and marked the beginning of the lambing season. The snowdrop is the symbol of the fertility goddess Brigid who was honoured at Imbolc; she was later transformed into St Bridget.
Traditionally snowdrops are not picked to be displayed indoors as they are considered unlucky. Due to their white, shroud-like tepals and their proximity to the ground, they are associated with the dead.
It is thought that the snowdrop might be the herb “Moly” referred to in Homer’s “Odyssey”. Described as a white flower dangerous for mortals to pluck, it was given to Odysseus by the god Hermes to protect him from Circe’s poison. Snowdrops contain the alkaloid galantamine which acts as an acetylcholinesterase inhibitor. This chemical has been used to treat disorders of the central nervous system and more recently is being used to counter the effects of Alzheimer’s. In the case of Odysseus’ men it perhaps counteracted the delusion caused by an anticholinergic drug making them believe that they were pigs.
Renowned nature lover, daffodil fan and poet, William Wordsworth saw fit to mention the humble snowdrop in his Two-Part Ballad 1888, the entirety of which you can read here, but this is the relevant part:
My story early, feeling, as I fear,
The weakness of a human love for days
Disowned by memory, ere the birth of spring
Planting my snowdrops among winter snows
During World War II, the British referred to US military police as “snowdrops” because they wore white helmets. It is also the affectionate nickname for the RAF police in the UK, as this quote from the ARRSE website shows they are held in high regard, “….they take a perverse pleasure in confiscating Leatherman tools and Swiss army knives from heavily armed soldiers, and X-raying rifles, pistols and other tools of the military trade to ensure that there is nothing dangerous hidden inside them.”
If you want to know more about the different cultivars of snowdrops you can download Mick Crawley’s pdf guide to identifying snowdrops here.