Snowdrops and Snowflakes

Guna RukšāneJaunrūjas Farm in Raiskums parish 

The first spring breezes were already in the air at the beginning of February, but… nothing will happen until the sun starts to shine. While they usually bloom in March, white flower buds appeared in a cluster of snowflakes along the south wall in our garden already in February, just waiting for the right moment to open up and delight those around them. Once while visiting Scotland in February, we visited a snowdrop exhibition, but before that we had taken part in a “snowdrop hunt” in the park of a manor house. It turns out that you don’t have to travel to Turkey, Crimea or the Carpathian Mountains to look for unusual flowers, dig them up, propagate them and then possibly nominate them as a variety. The entire old park and the banks of the river flowing through it were covered with these white messengers of spring.

In the United Kingdom, the passion for snowdrops began in the middle of the 19th century, when the wild white flowers came into the gardens of the wealthy. Some of the rhizomes came back with soldiers returning from the Crimean War, and some were torn from the ground by Dutch bulb traders who paid the Turkish collectors well. The passion for the snow-white flowers at that time was not much different from today. The rarest bulbs cost almost as much as an average person earned in a month.

Even today, rare varieties cost several hundred pounds. A bulb of the snowdrop ‘Green Tear’, which has green petals and was found in the Netherlands, can be purchased for £250, and the yellow snowdrop ‘Elizabeth Harrison’ from Scotland was sold for £725 in an auction on eBay. Countless shows and events dedicated to snowdrops take place in the UK every year in February, and one of the biggest galanthophile events takes place in Germany at the end of February. The fascination with snowdrops today has led to them being protected under the CITES treaty, which was created to protect endangered animals and plants around the world.

Snowdrops have not broken out of gardens on a large scale yet in Latvia, although I have seen snowdrops and snowflakes bloom in the wild in old cemeteries and in corners of manor parks. Excessive leaf raking might be at fault – it has resulted in all the nutrients that a tree, or spring flowers could use being composted at best, or burned on a bonfire at worst. The city of Cēsis is to be commended in this regard, as burning leaves and other waste has been prohibited. However, in my region of Pārgauja, garden bonfires are constantly burning in the spring and autumn. It is a shame to think how much excellent fertiliser is turned into a pile of ashes. But snowdrops, wood anemones, corydalis, scillas and other spring flowers grow in pure leaf humus.

There is a total of 20 varieties of wild snowdrops in the world, but cultivated forms and varieties exceed 2.5 thousand. The varieties most commonly grown in gardens in Latvia are the common snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) and the pleated snowdrop (Galanthus plicatus), which is more robust and has larger flowers. One of the largest snowdrops that grows in the wild is the platyphyllus (Galanthus platyphyllus) in the Caucasus Mountains. It is one of the few snowdrops that grows well in full sunlight.

The name of the snowdrop galanthus can be traced back to Greek and means “milk white flower”. It was once described by Homer in Odyssey as a plant that could be dangerous to mortals, but which protected Odysseus from the sorceress Circe’s magic. It is known today that a substance derived from snowdrops can, if taken in small doses, help in the early treatment of Alzheimer’s disease. Substances procured from snowdrops are also used in cosmetics.

It is possible that monks knew about the healing properties of snowdrops already in the Middle Ages. This would explain the large areas covered in snowdrops near some of the oldest monasteries and churches. Spring comes much sooner in Europe and snowdrops adorned churches already on Candlemas – the first Sunday in February. It is not difficult to imagine how much the snow-white flowers brightened up festivities by bringing light to the rooms in the gloomy grey days of February.

An ancient Christian legend says that the weather at the moment when Adam and Eve were expelled from Paradise was so rugged that the earth and the sky whirled together in a snow storm. When Eve had already lost all hope, the angels took pity on her and turned some of the snowflakes into snowdrops, thus making them a symbol of hope.

Snowdrops are quite fussy when they are being replanted. They are best propagated by dividing the rhizomes after flowering and planting them immediately in partial shade in humus-rich soil. Some writers believe they should be replanted after the leaves have withered. This seems logical, but our experience from the nursery shows that conditions for transplanting are better when the leaves are green, rather than as bulbs. Of course, the second option is more convenient for sellers.

Diseases that can affect snowdrops include grey mould, which can take over the flowers during wet springs if the soil is too dense. This is a fungal disease so when you see grey fluff appear on the stalks, the rhizome has to be dug up and burned. Another enemy to the beautiful flowers is the large and small narcissus bulb fly. It awakens in May when the snowdrops have already finished blossoming, but it doesn’t have any difficulty laying eggs in light sandy soil. Using any kind of mulch can protect against them. Last year’s leaves work just as well.