Plant of the Month - February 2012


Lone flower, hemmed in with snows and white as they
But hardier far, once more I see thee bend
Thy forehead, as if fearful to offend,
Like an unbidden guest. Though day by day,
Storms, sallying from the mountain-tops, waylay
The rising sun, and on the plains descend;
Yet art thou welcome, welcome as a friend
Whose zeal outruns his promise! Blue-eyed May
Shall soon behold this border thickly set
With bright jonquils, their odours lavishing
On the soft west-wind and his frolic peers;
Nor will I then thy modest grace forget,
Chaste Snowdrop, venturous harbinger of Spring,
And pensive monitor of fleeting years!

William Wordsworth - To a Snowdrop - 1819

Galanthus nivalis from Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz, Prof. Dr. Otto Wilhelm Thomé 1885

Our second plant of the month signals the transition between the cold bleak Winter and the expectation of Spring. It is the Snowdrop, known as Galanthus (Greek translation gála "milk", ánthos "flower"). It is a small genus of about 20 species of bulbous herbaceous plants in the Amaryllis family, subfamily Amaryllidoideae.

Galanthus nivalis 2005 
Photo: Wikipedia - Creative Commons Licence

Other common names include Candlemas bells, Mary’s taper, snow piercer, February fairmaids and Dingle-dangle. Snowdrops have strong traditional links to churches and Christianity. Snowdrops were the symbol of Candlemas, the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary which is celebrated on February 2nd. Traditionally any woman who wanted to warn off a man would just send him an envelope containing a few snowdrop blooms!

For St. Francis the snowdrop was an emblem of hope, and the touch of green on the inner petals has often been seized upon as a symbol of spring’s return. It is uplifting to see the green sword-shaped leaves piercing the snow and the apparently fragile bell-shaped flowers resisting all that winter can hurl at them.

Mrs. M Grieve, in her book 'A Modern herbal' (1931) describes snowdrops thus:

"The bulbs grow in compact masses. Each sends up a one-flowered stem. The points of the leaves protecting the flower-head are thickened and toughened at the tips, enabling them to push through the soil. This simple device shows on the mature leaf like a delicate nail on a green finger.
The flowers remain open a long time; the bud is erect, but the open flowers pendulous and adapted to bees. The perianth is in two whorls, on the inner surface of the inner perianth leaves are green grooves secreting honey - the stamens dehisce, or open, by apical slots and lie close against the style, forming a cone. The stigma projects beyond the anther cone and is first touched by an insect, which in probing for nectar, shakes the stamens and receives a shower of pollen."

Galanthus nivalis
 Photo: Wikipedia

Regarded by many as a wildflower, snowdrops were not recorded as growing wild in the UK until the 1770s. Most colonies are probably garden escapees though it is still thought some may be native, particularly in southwest England. Snowdrops are also native to a large part of Europe, as far north as Brittany, where they grow in damp woods and meadows.

The variety to be found at Castle Bromwich Hall Gardens is Galanthus nivalis, or Common snowdrop. Galanthus nivalis is a dwarf bulbous perennial of a height of 12cm/ 4 ½ and is fully hardy. This lovely plant consists of strap shaped green/grey leaves. Gorgeous nodding flowers of 3 white outer tepals and 3 smaller inner ones marked with green usually. The period of interest of Galanthus is February to early March, and the flower is often fragrant of honey. It has reliably early white drop like flowers with a green dot or spot. Several garden cultivars exist some with larger flowers than the species, some with double flowers, as well as some later flowering varieties.

Galanthus nivalis at Castle Bromwich Hall Gardens - Lower Wilderness 31st January 2012.
 Photos: Graham High

Our snowdrops are currently located in the lower wilderness in the outer deciduous beds:

Illustration: www.cbhgt.org.uk

There are also hundreds of cultivated varieties of Galanthus around (although not in our gardens) including giant, double and rare yellow kinds, some of which can change hands for significant sums of money. Yellow Galathus can be seen by clicking on this link.

Snowdrops are suitable for growing in borders, meadows, woodlands, and containers. They should be grown in a lightly shaded location in moist, cool soil such as equal parts of loam and compost or peat moss and sand. Plant the bulbs 3 or 4 inches deep and 2 or 3 inches apart in the fall. They look best when planted at least three or four plants together. Water Snowdrops well while they are blooming. Snowdrops can be difficult to establish in the garden and may take a couple of years to adjust to the new site, but, eventually, they will form large, compact groups.

A Cluster of Snowdrops.
 Photo: Wikipedia

The Galanthus genus is poisonous throughout due to concentration of alkaloids, three of which have only recently been discovered by science. Recent research suggests that the plant has potential applications in treatments for Alzheimer's disease. Click here for the full story. Home made remedies involving Galanthus as an ingredient should be avoided as they are potentially harmful.

The subject and growing of snowdrops can develop into an obsession. Such people are labelled Galanthophiles. More interesting is the folklore around the plant which survives to this day. The white flowers are regarded by some as highly unlucky when brought indoors. Some people also view snowdrops as ‘death-tokens’, and the flower has been described as ‘a corpse in its shroud'. This belief may have an anti-Catholic history to it, which in itself is an interesting topic for future research.

So there it is, the humble Snowdrop or Galanthus. Hopefully this page will be a useful source of information to you when you visit the Gardens this month. The plant is small in stature but large in beauty and folklore. Not bad for a February Fairmade...

 Snowdrop, illustrated by Nellie Benson, from  A Flower Book by Eden Coybee, 1901.

Recommended Further Reading:

Brickell, Christopher (ed.): The Royal Horticultural Society Gardners' Encyclopedia of Plants and Flowers, Dorling Kinderseley 1995,  ISBN 0 7513 0147

The Wikipedia entry for Galanthus is most useful, and provides a valuable reading list / jumping off point for further study and research: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Galanthus

The BBC have a great little Snowdrop webpage available at:  http://www.bbc.co.uk/nature/life/Galanthus_nivalis

There are a number of technical papers linking the ingredients found in Snowdrops and the possible treatment of Alzheimer's Disease. Lots can be found by searching on your local web search engine, but please be aware you will usually be required to pay to read articles from Scientific Journals.

Grateful thanks to:
Castle Bromwich Hall Gradens Trust - Gordon Sammons for his invaluable contributions, and to Sue Brain for practical assistance.

Creative Commons Licence

The photographs taken by Graham High in this work are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 UK: England & Wales License


  1. Superb post about Snowdrops Graham - really interesting and some lovely photos. I like the poem too and the Snowdrop illustration from A Flower Fantasy is beautiful.

  2. Thanks Caroline.

    I'm afraid I got the name of the book where the illustration came from wrong, and have amended the blog since you commented. Sorry about that. :)

    The correct full name for the book is The Dumpy Books for Children; No. 7. A Flower Book by Eden Coynbee, illustrated by Nellie Benson. It was a free public domain Kindle ebook download from Project Gutenberg. I've been waiting for an excuse to use it!

    Had I known about the book a month ago, I'd have used the Holly illustration too!

    If you don't have a kindle, here is a link to a browser-friendly version:


    Best wishes

    Graham )

  3. Hi Graham

    Thanks for the information re: the book. I was just about to search ebay! Husband has a kindle so I will look into the download and I will also check out the browser-friendly version. The illustration reminds me of the Flower Fairy Books by Cicely Barker.

    Thanks again for all the useful info.

    All the best


  4. Very nice information................Plants Toowoomba

    1. Thank you Jeny. Please stick around. Plenty more where that came from!