Recognised as the very first suggestion of spring, it is no wonder that this flower has long been considered as a symbol of hope and that there are better times on the horizon.
Snowdrops appear as a singular dainty white flower mimicking a droplet atop of an elegant green stem, their leaves straplike and grassy. They may appear delicate but don’t let that fool you as they are very tough plants, surviving the coldest temperatures and snowfall. Their little bobbing heads remind us that while much of our wildlife is dormant, there are bulbs under the ground preparing for the spring.
Found across the UK, snowdrops favour damp soil and lightly shaded woodland, often seen along riverbanks but also in our parks and gardens. Usually emerging in January, they will bloom until late February, however there are an increasing number of earlier sightings being recorded. During the 1950s snowdrops would typically arrive in late February, but over the last few decades they have even been known to appear before the New Year. Perhaps surprisingly, snowdrops are not native to the UK and are thought to have been introduced from mainland Europe by monks to be grown as ornamental garden flowers as early as the 16th Century. Their scientific name is Galanthus Nivalis, charmingly translated as ‘milk flower of the snow’.
Traditionally, snowdrops were used as a painkiller to treat headaches. They are still present in modern medicine, as galantamine, a naturally occurring substance within the plant which is used to treat the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. Snowdrop bulbs are in fact poisonous and have sometimes been mistaken for onions or shallots but are only dangerous when consumed in large proportions. Most snowdrops reproduce by division of the bulb rather than by pollination, as there are not enough pollinating insects active in the winter months to fertilise the flowers.
You can encourage any snowdrops you might have in your garden by digging up a clump, gently dividing, and then replanting them. This is called planting ‘in the green’ and is considered more effective than planting snowdrop bulbs in the autumn, which are so small that they are prone to drying up.
It may come as a surprise to learn that snowdrops are in fact endangered, as they appear in abundance throughout Britain during the winter. Due to a great amount having been dug up to sell as garden plants, along with the effects of climate change, they are now considered under threat of extinction in some countries. Collecting snowdrop bulbs in the wild is now widely illegal.
Snowdrops can provide winter foraging feast for bees who come out of hibernation early, their pollen becoming available in the warmer temperatures. As they are blooming when there is not much else available, this gives bees an important source of food. Being the first to flower after the barren winter, it really is no wonder that the snowdrop is renowned for being the flower of hope. Once we spot these nodding little buds, it becomes easier to detect further signs of spring.
The snowdrops will be joined by the morning melodies of the dawn chorus as the birds begin to serenade. Then follows the burst of joyful daffodils, beckoning the sunshine and warmer days to come. Before we know it there will be blooms of blossom and a buzz of bees in the air as wildlife awakens from a wintery slumber. Whilst out on your winter walks be sure to look out for the resilient snowdrop growing wild in local woods, parkland, banks and verges – leading the way towards springtime.