I took a photograph today of our latest flowering of snowdrops. They are early ones, probably an elwesii type, judging by the size of the flowers and the shape of the leaves which are just showing (the label had gone missing, no doubt uprooted in one of my more energetic weeding exercises). But they’re not the earliest ones in our garden – we had a couple of fine clumps of Reginae-olgae which flowered in October. They appear without leaves, brave little Galanthus named for the Queen Regent of Greece in the 1920s and native to that country, and require a slightly warmer, sunnier position than most snowdrops. Our border nearest the house (south facing, gritty soil) is clearly good for this, but it’s the first year we’ve had two clumps of them. Sadly, little Reginae-olgae only lasted about a couple of weeks before snails munched some of the flowers and wind and rain battered the petals off the rest.
We have a lot of snowdrops around the garden – nirvalis, elwesii and plicatus types. The notable ones include a stand of Magnet (large and tall) under a witch hazel and a spindle tree, Flore Pleno (double flowered) by a rosebush and Blewbury Tart (also double flowered) in various places. The front bed near the house also had some Three Ships (which unsurprisingly flower near Christmas) and Wendy’s Gold (the only yellow snowdrop that has increased happily in our garden). We also have one called Llo ‘n’ green – who could resist such a named variety? None of these are very rare or expensive – you can pay over a thousand pounds for some snowdrops and I would feel so responsible had I purchased a pricey one and lost it – but they have always given me great pleasure. When I was a child we had a little clump of double snowdrops by the step up into the garden that came up every January when the rest of the garden was sleeping, and they give you such hope for the renewal of the season. “If winter comes, can spring be far behind” and all that.
There are two legends about snowdrops I want to tell.
The first is that snowdrops came into being when Adam and Eve were put out of the Garden of Eden. One of the angels wanted to let Eve know that there was hope and he tossed a snowflake to earth. As it broke up on the bare ground, little snowflake flowers sprung up and Eve dried her tears.
The other tale is that God sent snow to the earth to collect the colours of the flowers as they died. However, some flowers were reluctant to give up their colours, and the snowdrop was the foremost of these. So God made a bargain with the snowdrop. For giving up its colour, it could be the first flower to blossom in the garden, announcing spring each year. So the snowdrop agreed, which is why we have not scarlet, not purple, not gold nor pink, but little white snowdrop flowers, heralding spring.
There may be different versions and more stories about these flowers, but I leave you with their appearance in Monsalvat:
I’d not been in Monsalvat long when the damp late winter weather almost got the better of me. I stamped round the Good Friday meadow, found the muddy banks of the river just too claggy to walk properly, and returned through the thin rain towards the castle. Depressed, I wondered, briefly, if I’d be better off at my temporal home in Waleis, but decided against it. Monsalvat does have other attractions, even if I was hard pressed to recall them in the current disappointing climate. I gave my wet cloak to a convenient page, and headed for the solar, which I knew would be warm. In inclement weather, even my honoured father leaves his study to be with us by the solar’s fire.
My brother was in the solar, seated in front of a quite splendid fire, snuffling slightly, and replacing a couple of strings on a harp. He looked to be tightening the peg he was working on too far. In the window seat our revered sire apparently stared at the drizzle coming down outside, although he winced as the harp string broke. Loherangrin swore, and put the harp down, sucked his thumb where the gut had lashed him as it broke. I sat in the chair opposite him, and stretched my feet out towards the fire. The damp leather of my boots would probably steam and crack on drying, but I didn’t really care.
Parzival shifted slightly on the window seat and said, “Did you go down to the river, Kardeiz?”
“Yes,” I replied. “It’s bloody miserable out there. I came back past the apple trees, which I see haven’t been pruned yet.”
“It’s been too wet and cold,” said Loherangrin, who was building up the fire, something he can actually do with some success.
“Are the snowdrops by the apple trees out yet?” enquired Parzival, his voice uncharacteristically soft. He was still staring out, leaning against the stonework, his patrician profile clear and calm.
I was almost surprised. “Just showing,” I replied.
The door opened and our august mother, Condwiramus, entered, holding a steaming jug. Parzival was there before either of us could move, taking the full jug from her and putting it on the table. Condwiramus collected cups from the shelf by the door.
“Mulled wine, boys,” said Condwiramus. “I saw you, ‘Deiz, coming back from your walk, and thought you could do with a bit of warming from the inside. It’s horrible out there.”
“The rain is good for the fruit trees,” said Parzival, who’d picked up Loherangrin’s harp on his way back to the window seat.
“I’m sure it is, dear,” said Condwiramus, “but we’re not plant life. We’d like a little sun and warmth.”
“So,” said Parzival repressively, “would the plant life.”