Snowdrops appear as if tears mourning the end of winter and beckoning the coming spring in the Northeast, where I first made their acquaintance. Even before their bright cousins, the purple and yellow crocus, the star of a snowdrop brings a momentary glimpse of the green to come. In New England, spotting a snowdrop is a hopeful moment in what always feels like too long of a winter. These tiny flowers are found all over gardens and lawns, in shady areas and under sprawling pasture trees.
Snowdrops have been cultivated since the Middle Ages, and tend to show up in European churchyards, possibly because they were once associated with the ancient Christian feast of Candlemas -- an early ritual celebrating the presentation of Christ at the temple -- marking the end of the Christmas season. Candles were blessed by priests and kept at home for use in times of trial, sickness and death. The feast day was February 2nd, and is celebrated right around the time that most snowdrops make their debut.
Named like so many flowers by Linnaeus, the scientific title for snowdrops comes from the Greek gala (milk) and anthos (flower) followed by nivalis, from the Latin word for snow. Galanthus nivalis is the common snowdrop, although there are hundreds of varietals of this delightful small bulb. By the printing of the 1633 book, Herball (Generall Historie of Plantes), the flowers were already identified by their common name. While snowdrops are adored in England, where they have readily naturalized and thrive in the shady churchyards and woodlands, they are actually native to Southeast Europe and Turkey. A species of Galanthus plicatus (Crimean snowdrop) is indigenous to the area around the Black Sea and Caucasus Mountains. There, these larger snowdrops grow amongst wild cyclamen and hellebores in a particularly striking display. Snowdrops are related to daffodils, in the Amaryllis genus, while their often-neighbors, crocus, are related to iris.
The irony of a snow-blooming flower has long been noted, as in the book Familiar Flowers of Field and Garden (Mathews) from 1895:
“When the snow and the flower are seen thus together, we are startled by the incongruity of the situation: death and life side by side on the dawn of the living year. The 1st of January, New Year’s day, is but a name; the real birthday of the year is marked by the first snowdrop which lifts its head above the winter’s snow.”
Many have mistaken the small bulbs of snowdrops for an edible onion, but unlike tulip bulbs, they are quite toxic. During a Nazi blockade in World War II that resulted in a famine known now as the Hungerwinter, it is rumored desperate residents of the Netherlands mistakenly consumed snowdrops and were poisoned. Today the alkaloid found in these bulbs are studied in trials as a possible treatment for Alzheimer’s disease, further emphasizing the fascinating paradox of snowdrops: the tiny plant that once stole life now holds the promise to give it back, to extend it.
Galanthus nivalis is also an excellent reminder as we struggle through the long nights and darker days of wintertime that there is beauty in perseverance amidst even the most trying environment. Snowdrops will sometimes even bloom beneath a blanket of snow. Perhaps snowdrops have resumed what the Feast of Candlemas once promised ancient Christians: a talisman of blessing, a remembrance of hope, in a time of darkness.