Left: The snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) under the quince trees in Bonnefont Cloister bloom from February to March, while snowdrops in warmer climates may flower as early as January; right: the closely related spring snowflake (Leucojum vernum) blooms from March to May.
The winter-blooming snowdrop and spring snowflake appear so closely related that the great sixteenth-century herbalist John Gerard named them the Early Blooming Bulbous Violet and the Late Blooming Bulbous Violet. He also asserted that neither ancient writers nor his contemporaries had anything to say about the plants’ medicinal properties, and that both were cherished solely for their beauty and fragrance. Gerard regarded bulbous violets as garden plants introduced from Italy, although the snowdrop, which was to accumulate much lore in England, may be native there.
While the snowdrop became a Mary flower because of the white bloom and the association with the feast of her Purification, the flower’s association with purity was so far extended by the nineteenth century that Snowdrop Bands—chapters of a society for the encouragement of working-class girls to espouse chaste lives and avoid indecency—were organized. The journal of the society was called The Snowdrop, and members carried cards with a picture of a snowdrop and a promise to avoid indecent conversation and immoral literature. The groups held “brown suppers,” during which members potted up snowdrop bulbs, and “white suppers” when the snowdrops where in bloom (Paula Bartley, Prostitution: Prevention and Reform in England, 1860–1914).
I haven’t been able to find snowdrops in a Marian context in medieval art, but spring snowflakes do appear in representations of the Virgin by several German masters of the fifteenth century, including the famous Paradise Garden by the Master of the Upper Rhine in the Städel Museum in Frankfurt. Both the flowering lawn and the borders of the garden are filled with Mary plants. The spring snowflake appears below the hem of the Virgin’s blue robe, just to the right of the figure of the infant Jesus.
Both Roy Vickery in A Dictionary of Plant Lore (1995) and Richard Mabey in Flora Brittanica (1996) have collected testimony from twentieth-century informants in Great Britain confirming a popular superstition that snowdrops are an unlucky flower that can bring misfortune and death if picked and brought into the house, perhaps because they are often found growing in cemeteries and churchyards. Vickery cites Hilderic Friend, a Victorian authority on flower lore, who explains this association by the blossom’s resemblance to a shroud. Is it related to the fact that the snowdrop is as much a winter flower as a spring flower?
Does anyone know of any examples of this association of snowdrops with death in other European cultures?