Snowdrops – winter superstars

Snowdrops are powerful signs of resilience. They look so delicate with their white flowers nodding bell-like on a stem, but they are tough, making their way through the frozen earth when little else is flowering.

These winter superstars are both cultivated in gardens and grow wild. The earliest record of wild snowdrops in Britain dates from the 1770s. Originating from Europe’s mountains, their leaves have hardened tips and their sap contains a form of anti-freeze.

The humble snowdrop also contains healing remedies for humans. Traditionally, the crushed bulb of a snowdrop might ease a headache by being rubbed against the temples. More recently, scientists have identified an alkaloid in snowdrops called galanthamine, now manufactured artificially, to relieve moderate symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease, and improve memory. The scientific name for the common snowdrop is galanthus nivalis from the Greek for milk (gala) and flower (anthos), and the Latin: of the snow (nivalis). The Welsh word, eirlys, is equally descriptive translating as snow (eira) and vegetable (llys).

Once called Candlemas Bells, snowdrops were traditionally brought into churches on Candlemas Day to symbolise purity. In medieval times, people brought their candles to the church to be blessed on this midwinter holy day. Celebrated on 2 February, Candlemas commemorates the feast of the Virgin Mary and the presentation of the infant Christ in the Temple. You can still see snowdrops in ancient churchyards, planted for ready supply.

In the Language of Flowers, snowdrops are dual symbols of hope: they can be positive if presented at a wedding and consolatory at a funeral. However, whatever our intention, we must not pick snowdrops growing wild in their natural habitat, because they are classified as critically endangered. It seems odd that such common flowers are at risk but this is because the snowdrop is the one of the most widely-traded bulbs in the world.

But do encourage your snowdrops in the garden by digging up a clump, gently dividing them and replanting them. Called planting ‘in the green’, this method is considered more effective than planting snowdrop bulbs in the autumn, which are so small they are prone to drying up. Fertile varieties of snowdrops have protein-rich seeds which ants take underground to their nests to feed their eggs. Thanks to the ants, the seeds are spread. And, if the weather is warm enough, queen bumblebees will also do their bit. Moles have also been known to disperse snowdrop seeds. However snowdrops do not depend on seed production to survive because there are not enough pollinating insects in wintry Britain to fertilise the flowers. So, usually, snowdrops in the wild have proliferated by producing new bulbs.

Look for snowdrops growing wild in woodland, parkland, banks, verges and hedgerows. Their white flowers offer a vital food source for insects that emerge early in the year such as flies and bees. Our work at Avon Wildlife Trust nature reserves benefit the snowdrops. With volunteer help, we clear brambles and shrubs to ensure a variety of trees and plants to thrive, allowing sunlight to reach the woodland floor.

If you’re interested in helping with the conservation work on our nature reserves, do get in touch. You can find out more about volunteering with Avon Wildlife Trust here

Snowdrop portrait in the sunshine (c) Steve Nicholls , snowdrops and man hiking (c) Claire Davey.