Just as its name suggests, the snowdrop flowers may not wait for the snow to fully melt before emerging from the ground; and it is due to their traditional flowering time – around February 2 – that the first spring flowers are also known as ‘Candlemas Bells’. From the name of the Christian holiday celebrated on that date, the Candlemas Holly Day commemorating three holly occasions in one: the presentation of the child Jesus; Jesus’ first entry into the temple; and the Virgin Mary’s purification. And according to the Christian belief, the snowdrops flower at that time to symbolise hope and Jesus as the “light of the world;” and snowdrops have the power to purify the house that are brought into.
But the history of snowdrops stretches far beyond Christian times, to play the role of a magic herb three thousand years ago in Homer’s Odyssey where Hermes (god Mercury) gives a what is called a Molly herb to Odysseus to protect him and make him immune to the forgetfulness poisons of the witch Circe when he went to her home to rescue his friends. Homer describes Moly as: “The root was black, while the flower was as white as milk; the gods call it Moly, Dangerous for a mortal man to pluck from the soil, but not for the deathless gods. All lies within their power” and that is quite fitting, as the Caucasian snowdrop contains galantamine that is known as the most potent anti-Alzheimer’s agent.
The general botanic name Galanthus, from the Greek gala (milk) and anthos (flower), was given to the genus by Carl Linnaeus, who is 1753 classified them in the Amaryllidaceae family and named them Galanthus nivalis, literally ‘milk flower of the snow’.
With the commonly known name of the flower recorded first in use in English circa a century earlier, or to be precise, in Robert Boyle’s Experiments and considerations touching colours from 1664, where the author writes about: “Those purely White Flowers that appear about the end of Winter, and are commonly call’d Snow drops.”
Followed by the first mentioning of the flower in a British gardener’s almanac in a 1664 Kalendarium Hortense by John Evelyn, under the synonymous names of “snow flowers or snow drops”.
There are over 20 different species of snowdrops, distributed across Europe and the Middle East, with the highest diversity of species in Turkey and the Caucasus, but it is Britain (the country where in 1891, the Royal Horticultural Society gathered for a conference on snowdrops) to be shaken in the last couple of year by the so-called Galanthomania, the search for new varieties, with the craze pushing the prize of some bulbs to the thousands mark.
And for most of us, who are not galanthophiles, snowdrops – in all their shapes and varieties – are the first flowers of the winter and the symbol of the hope that warm times will enter our lives.