Note for your diary that the first talk of 2012 at Cabragh Wetlands will be on Tuesday 24th January at 8.00pm, when Kevin Collins, the renowned local naturalist, will talk on the Birds of Cabragh Wetlands.
At this early stage it would be foolish in the extreme to think that we have escaped with a mild winter, but the signs are good. Strawberry plants are still flowering from the 2011 season, daffodils have been spotted and at this rate we will be picking rhubarb in February – what a welcome contrast to the last two winter freezes. And there can be little doubt that the galantophiles among us are getting very excited at the prospect of an exceptional season for their favourite plant – the humble little snowdrop, which has been flowering unusually early in the first week of January. It is often well into February before it appears.
Cabragh Wetlands’ local galantophile is a lady of modesty and learning, but unscrupulous villains are lurking out there who will stop at nothing to get hold of samples of the rarest snowdrop bulbs. Fairs where devotees can exchange and sell prized rarities are mostly run secretively, and privacy is essential if stocks are to be protected and preserved. Gardens have been raided in the depths of the night by unscrupulous spade-wielding bandits.
The snowdrop, galanthus nivalis, is probably not native to Ireland and Britain, but is believed to have been introduced by monks in the 15th century, and was first recorded by Elizabethan naturalists. In 1633 Gerard’s “ Great Herbal” noted that what was previously called the Early-Flowering Bulbous Violet, “some do call …snowdrops”. This is probably an anglicized version of the Swedish ‘snödroppe’ and the German ‘schneeglöchen’ - snowbell. The French name of Snow Piercer (‘pierce-neige’) reminds us that often the snowdrop is normally the first flower to push through the snow and ice and send out the welcome message that spring is on the way.
Snowdrops were also known as Candlemas Bells, and the purity of their whiteness made them a perfect early-flowering plant to decorate churches as part of the ceremonies connected to the Feast of Purification on Candlemas Day (February 2nd). In some country areas the snowdrop was also known as Death’s Flower, because it was considered unlucky for the girls who picked the plant; if the first spray was brought into the home, a fatality would certainly follow. John Feehan’s wonderful book on the Wildflowers of Offaly points out the aptness of its name – galanthus meaning milk-flower and nivalis equals snowy. The pendant-shape of the flower refers to the old fashioned use of “drop” to mean decorative pendant rather than snow flake. Feehan recalls the old legend of Eve outside the Garden of Eden, dismayed at the barren wilderness of her future home, but buoyed up when an angel breathed on the falling snow, turning snowflakes into snowdrops. The snowdrop remains a symbol of hope and consolation.
Snowdrops are scented, and rely largely on the bulb for propagation, as there are few bees around in winter to spread the pollen and conditions in the northerly extremities of its range make it hard for fertile seed to set. If you see snowdrops in the wild or in gardens, they will probably have been planted by people rather than spread by natural dispersal and propagation. It is now very widespread, and always a source of joy – the very breath of spring. Snowdrops may be far from their native lands in southern and central Europe, but they have assimilated into the habitats of our world to become an integral part of our landscape.