By February we are all utterly weary of winter's leaden skies and lashing storms and desperately seeking those first subtle signs of spring, so it comes as no surprise that Common Snowdrops, or February's Fairmaid as they are sometimes called, are such popular flowers. It is a heavy heart indeed that could not be lifted by the sight of a milky white snowdrop flower head as it nods cheerily in the soft sunlight of a mild winter's day, or bravely peering through a late winter snowfall to earn their French name of "Pierce-neige" or Snow Piercer.
There are about 20 species of Galanthus in all, with the name Galanthus nivalis stemming from the Greek gala and anthus "Milky flower" and the Latin nivalis meaning "Snow".
Fond of damp woodland and watercourses, many people mistakenly believe that the Common Snowdrop is truly native to Britain or introduced in Roman times, but in fact snowdrops were first recorded in John Gerard's 1597 edition of "Great Herball" and were first documented in the wild only in the late 1770's. It is now believed Galanthus nivalis were first introduced into gardens in the late 1500's from Europe where their range spreads from the Pyrennees in the West to the Ukraine in the East.
The "Flower of Hope" grew in popularity around the time of the Crimean War (1853-1856) when many soldiers returned with a new larger variety of the spring bulb, Galanthus plicatus, the Crimean Snowdrop, which bravely covered the battlefields despite the harsh winters to augur spring. Our love affair with these delicate yet incredibly tough spring flowers continued to grow and today snowdrops are one of the most widely traded bulbs in the world.
Its long history in Europe and the UK means the humble Snowdrop is well established in folklore, literature and religion. The Snowdrop's strong Ecclesiastical associations are indicated in some of its alternative names such as Candlemas Bells, Mary's Taper and Eve's Tears.
The snowdrop is a flower of contradictions. On the one hand, for Catholics Snowdrops symbolised hope and purity. Snowdrop garlands were traditionally used in the Candlemas procession on 2nd February celebrating the Purification of the Virgin Mary, which is one reason why they are so widespread along traditional routes to village churches.
At the same time snowdrops also have a darker side to their folklore history. Perhaps owing to the flower's white shroud-like petals, Snowdrops have long been associated with death and bad luck. In Greek mythology Persephone or Kore, Queen of the Underworld and the goddess of vegetation, is said to have carried Snowdrops on her return from Hades in Spring. The snowdrops she carried brought back life to a barren, wintery landscape, but also carried strong negative connotations of the Underworld they came from.
Also called Death's Flower, the Snowdrop became associated with death for many Victorians. According to superstition, seeing a lone Snowdrop was perceived as a portent of death and it was also meant to be unlucky to bring the first Snowdrop flower of the season inside a house.
Whatever their origins and mythology, Snowdrops hold a deep and enduring place in our psyche signalling Spring, while for our overwintering wildlife, the sight of a Common Snowdrop is undoubtedly very lucky indeed and a massive boon at a time of great hardship and need.
Their flowers provide a desperately needed source of nectar and pollen for early insects such as solitary bees emerging from hibernation, while their seedpods that also contain protein-rich elaiosomes are taken by ants and fed to their larvae. In so doing, the ants complete the circle of life by helping the Snowdrop plants disperse and start new colonies elsewhere.