Friday, February 20, 2009

Fair Maids of February

Budding snowdrops in Bonnefont Garden Snowdrop bulbs opening Fully open flowers

Above, from left to right: a cluster of snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) budding beneath a quince in Bonnefont Garden; each bulb sends up two leaves and a single flowering stem; the fully open flowers persist for weeks.

The snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) is the first spring bulb to emerge in Bonnefont Garden. Native to much of Europe, although probably naturalized in England, Scotland, Holland, Belgium, and Scandinavia, the snowdrop blooms from January to March in woods and scrub and by streams (Martyn Rix and Roger Phillips, The Bulb Book, 1981). It is widely grown in gardens on both sides of the Atlantic, and has escaped and naturalized in Canada and the northeastern United States. (See the U.S.D.A. Natural Resources Conservation Service for more information about the distribution of Galanthus nivalis in the U.S. and Canada.)

The modern botanical name was conferred in the eighteenth century by the great Swedish taxonomist Carl Linnaeus. The word Galanthus comes from the Greek gala (“milk”) and anthos (“flower”); the Latin nivalis means “of the snow.”

Many common names for Galanthus, in English as well as other languages, associate the plant with the month of February, such as “fair maids of February,” for example, or “Candlemas bells” (cf. lichtmisbloem in Flemish and violette de chandeleur in French). Another set of common names refers to the habit of blooming in the snow: perce-niege, or “snow piercer,” in French, and schneeglocken, or “snowbells,” in German.

The name snowdrop does not seem to have been commonly used in English before the end of the seventeenth century. It is simply called “an Early White Bulbous Violet” in both Elizabethan and Stuart garden writers (Geoffrey Grigson, The Englishman’s Flora, 1987)—a bookish name that would seem to indicate a relatively unfamiliar plant. John Gerard, the great sixteenth-century herbalist, characterizes Galanthus nivalis as common in Elizabethan gardens, but believed it to have been introduced to England from Italy. The question of its native or non-native status still preoccupies British galanthophiles in the thousands.

Admiration and affection for the snowdrop in Great Britain is enormous, and snowdrop festivals and tours are offered throughout the U.K. (See “White gold: Britain’s new love for snowdrops,” The Independent, Saturday, February 9, 2008.) There is also a huge literature on the collection and cultivation of the multitude of forms and species of Galanthus now available, many of which were already known in the nineteenth century.

It is certainly the case that snowdrops are found in very large colonies on monastic sites in England, but there is little record of the snowdrop in medieval sources. Celia Fisher, who finds that the snowdrop makes its first artistic appearance in manuscripts illuminated by Jean Bourdichon in the early sixteenth century, speculates that the snowdrop may have been brought to England by pilgrims from Rome and beyond (The Medieval Flower Book, 2008). Many articles and essays make casual reference to the practice of placing snowdrops on the altar on the feast of Candlemas as a symbol of the purity of the Virgin (see “February Fill-Dyke” for more about Candlemas) but the practice has not been documented in a medieval source.

Although the snowdrop was to have a spectacular career as a poet’s flower—from William Wordsworth through the Victorians and beyond—there are no earlier literary references known to me beyond an early church calendar of flowers, in which the flowers associated with saints days and holy days are set forth in couplets:

The Snow-drop in purest white arraie
First rears her head on Candelmas daie.

This flower calendar is among the materials collected by V.S. Lean in the nineteenth century for his volume of proverbs and folklore, and is often quoted in snowdrop literature. It may date to the sixteenth century, but is unlikely to be earlier; the poem makes reference to the crocus in association with Saint Valentine’s feast day, and spring-blooming species of crocus were unknown in the Middle Ages.

Does anyone have any medieval evidence to contribute to the Galanthus file?

—Deirdre Larkin

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