Folkdays: Snowdrops

It has been quite a tumultuous year since I wrote my Folkdays post on bluebells last May. At that time, I was adjusting to a new normal of being locked-down in a city, with only a few spots of nature to be found. Now, I have moved back home, to a place where nature abounds – and while I am looking forward to the spring and the arrival of the bluebells, I am also enjoying the sight of another early spring bloom: the snowdrop.

As heralds of the coming spring, I am sure snowdrops come with plenty of folklore: let’s explore, below.

A wonderful insight into the folklore surrounding a certain plant can come from its folk names. To explore the beliefs, superstitions, and myths which surround the snowdrop, I’ll be looking at some of its common names, to unravel the stories which are bound up within them.

Snow-bells, Snow-flower, Snow-piercer – These variations on the more widely recognised name ‘snowdrops’ puts a focus on the concept of snow. We might assume that the flower gets its name from the weather phenomenon, as it shares the same white colour. However, in this German folktale, the opposite is the case, and it is the snow which owes its colour to the snowdrop. Bemoaning its transparent nature, the snow asked God for colour. God told the snow to seek colour amongst the flowers, but every bloom that the snow approached guarded its colour jealously, and turned away. Only one small white flower was willing to gift its colour to the snow. In return for this generosity, the snow allows its friend, the snowdrop, to bloom earliest in the spring.

White-bells, white-cups, white ladies – Some folk names drop the association to the snow, and denote the plant purely based on its colour. In pagan beliefs, colours held strong significance: the colour green promoted health, while white conveyed strength. The white light of the winter sun is growing and strengthening at the time snowdrops are in bloom; the flowers herald the coming of spring, with the promise of new life and nourishment. Snowdrops are symbolic for the pagan celebration Imbolc, which derives its name from oimelc or Ewe’s milk. The flowers are white as snow, but also as milk: the nourishing substance that gives strength and vitality. The Roman festival of Lupercalia, held at the place where the founders of Rome were suckled by a wolf, is also celebrated around this time.

Candlemas bells, Mary’s taper – There are often connections between older pagan beliefs and the Christian customs which followed. After Imbolc comes Candlemas, a festival which celebrates the mother Mary’s purification in the Temple of Jerusalem, following the birth of Jesus. As the name might suggest, candles are central to this festival, and snowdrops with their pale, oval flowers bear some resemblance to a candle’s flame.

Purification flower, white purification – The colour white has also come to symbolise the purity, and snowdrops share in that association. Snow, bright light, milk, and fire are all seen to hold purifying properties, and the connections snowdrops hold to these things also lend them this power. In Shropshire and Herefordshire, there is a custom to bring the flower indoors to purify the house after the long dark of winter. Yet this is not a widespread practice: in most parts of the country, folklore warns against bringing snowdrops indoors. To do so is an omen of, at best, soured milk; at worst, death.

Death’s flower, drooping heads – Snowdrops have strong links to the notion of death. In most folk narrative, this is due to their appearance. Their white petals are said to look like a corpse’s shroud, and their drooping heads like a procession of sombre mourners. They grow close to the ground, where the dead sleep, and they thrive in shade of graveyards. This connection is also found in the story of Persephone, goddess of both underworld and of vegetation, who carries snowdrops to earth when she leaves Hades in spring. The flowers bring the first signs of life to a wintery world, but are also pale reminders of death.

Associations with death could also stem from the plant itself, which is poisonous when eaten. The bulbs resemble those of the edible wild garlic, often found in the same environments, which has undoubtedly lead to some fatalities. Early herbalists did not know of any medicinal benefits that could be drawn from snowdrops, either, to improve their reputation. It was eventually found that snowdrops can provide a mild painkiller for headaches.

In modern medicine, the naturally-occuring substance called galantamine, found within snowdrops, is being used to treat Alzheimer’s disease. Which brings me to the final folk name…

The flower of hope – Snowdrops are symbolic of strength, purity, and hope. They bring hope for the coming spring, when the days will lengthen and lighten, the weather will be warmer, and plants will grow and flourish. On 1 March, Russians celebrate Snowdrop Day, where children gather bunches of the flowers to give to older relatives, giving thanks that winter has passed.

Whether you wish to do the same, or would rather leave the flowers to bloom where they grow, I think it can be agreed upon that snowdrops are a lovely sight to see.

Other signs of spring…

I found lots of resources really helpful when researching the folklore surrounding snowdrops:

The Hedgerow Apothecary: Recipes, Remedies and Rituals, by Christine Iverson – a really interesting overview on the traditional uses of snowdrops

The Secret Language of Flowers, by Samantha Gray

Plant Lore and Legend, by Ruth Binney

‘Snowdrops’, by Plant-Lore – a brilliant compilation of anecdotes, of the folk beliefs surrounding the bringing of snowdrops inside

‘The Folklore of Snowdrops’, by Creative Countryside

‘The Magic of Snowdrops’, by Eco Enchantments

‘Which Trees Have Catkins? and How to Tell Them Apart’, by Martha Boalch – a really handy guide to those new to identifying catkins

‘Bark and Buds: How to Easily Identify 12 Common Deciduous Trees in Winter’, by Paul Kirtley – a fantastic resource with clear pictures and descriptions!

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