From the first blooms emerging in early February, to later drifts carpeting a damp woodland floor, snowdrops have the power to gladden the heart and move the spirit. Perhaps its their apparent fragility amongst the sombre blacks, browns and greys of winter woods, or that when they appear you know Spring is not far behind!
A member of the onion family, common snowdrops (galanthus nivalis) occur naturally across much of Europe from the Pyrenees to eastern Turkey. However in Britain there's been much past debate on whether they're native here or not. They were included in Gerard's Herbal of 1597 (as a London garden flower), but only recorded as wild in the 1770s. Despite the timing of those records its very likely that snowdrops were growing here long before then. Perhaps there was a religious link.
Some believe that snowdrops were introduced in medieval times by monasteries and other religious bodies linked to mainland Europe. It's certainly true that many are found on former monastic sites and in churchyards. Two of the English names for common snowdrops, Candlemas bells and Mary's tapers – also point to potential religious links, Candlemas being the Christian festival of the Purification of the Virgin Mary on 2 February. Whatever their early origins at least some snowdrops have found a different route to these shores. British soldiers in the harsh conditions of the Crimean war (1853 – 56) welcomed them as heralds of Spring and survivors brought many back for their gardens.
Much of the debate about their origins in Britain, centred around our winter climate. Despite their somewhat vulnerable appearance, snowdrops are actually quite hardy. They've specially hardened leaf tips and a type of sheath to protect the flower's emergence through potentially frozen ground. Therefore they can grow well in our cold winter months. However to prove whether they are native or not, the question is, are there sufficient late winter/early Spring flying insects to pollinate the flowers and enable their spread by seed. Many of the snowdrops occurring wild in Britain (including garden escapes) have spread by division of their bulbs rather than by seed. This is due to cultivated garden varieties from which many snowdrops growing in the wild have spread, usually being sterile and unable to produce fertile seeds, as well as a lack of pollinators.
In recent years its been found that ants can also help the spread of snowdrops. The ants are attracted by fleshy parts of the seed called elaisomes, which contain fats and proteins. The ants carry the seeds back to their underground nests to feed to their larvae. However the critical part of the seed responsible for growth is left untouched by the larvae, and can develop into a new plant possibly, in a different location.
Obviously with our winters becoming milder with climate change, its likely that there'll be more insects around in late winter to enable pollination of the snowdrop flowers. Although of course whether they continue to spread will depend on having appropriate sites and habitats available. Whatever their British origins, its safe to say though that they'll remain a firm favourite with the public and will always be welcomed as one of the first signs of Spring.
www.theguardian.com www.kewgardens.org Flora Britannica Richard Mabey 1996
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