. . . remembering
after so long how to open again
in the cold light
of earliest spring -
"Snowdrops" Louise Glück
SNOWDROPS signify renewal and hope like no other flower. Louise
Glück, a contemporary poet, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1993 for
The Wild Iris (Carcanet, 1992), her collection of poems
set in a garden, and which includes "Snowdrops". But these little
blooms were beloved by the 19th-century English Romantic poets,
too, and it is tempting to assume that they are native. They are
almost certainly alien, however. The species Galanthus
nivalis arrived first, introduced by the Romans.
Snowdrops occur naturally from central Europe to Asia Minor.
Once here, the white flowers became associated with purity, and
were planted in honour of the Virgin Mary. There are seemingly wild
populations at places of pilgrimage such as Walsingham, in Norfolk,
and at ancient monasteries.
They garnered a variety of common, or county names: white
violet; snow-piercer (perce-neige is used in France to
this day); fair maids of February; and Candlemas bells. In fact,
they serve as good justification for Latin botanical nomenclature:
not only did the common names vary from region to region, they
failed to distinguish between G. nivalis, and species
introduced later on.
G. plicatus first arrived in the 1600s, and its numbers
were bolstered by soldiers bringing it home from the Crimean War in
the 1850s. G. elwesii is named after Henry John Elwes, who
discovered it in Turkey and exported it to Britain from 1874
The snowdrop's history on our shores is a perfect example of the
domestication of a garden plant. An alien species is introduced,
perhaps by accident or out of curiosity. Its merits are
appreciated, and it is shared between gardeners.
A "cultivar" is born when such a variant is selected and
maintained through cultivation and propagation. It may display
larger flowers, early flowering, ease of cultivation, or unusual
colouring or distinctive markings. Horticultural desire and
connoisseurship has resulted in more than 700 named
Galanthus cultivars in British gardens.
So, spoilt for choice as we are, which snowdrops stand out from
the crowd? G. "S. Arnott" is tall and has honey-scented
flowers. It was selected by Samuel Arnott (1852-1930), Provost of
Maxwelltown, Dumfries and Galloway. G. "Atkinsii" honours
another galanthophile, James Atkins, and is tall, elegant, early,
and increases well. G. "Magnet" is notable for flowers
which, being held well away from the stem, seem to spin on a windy
Snowdrop bulbs are prone to drying out. Plump bulbs bought in
summer from a reputable supplier (thereby from cultivated stock
rather than the wild), and planted in autumn, are another way to
introduce a hint of optimism into your garden.