by Jess Price
Snowdrops are often the first sign of spring and a sure indication that milder weather is on its way. If you are out and about in January it’s not too early to see clusters of bright white bell-shaped flowers in woodlands, parks, gardens and churchyards.
Although they may look delicate, snowdrops are actually hardy perennials, well adapted to cold winters. The flowers grow from bulbs, aided by harden leaf tips that can push through frozen soil. Each bulb will produce two or three, narrow blue-green, linear leaves and a single stem with one nodding flower. Each flower has three pure white petal-like segments and three white inner segments with a green patch towards the tip. Any variation from this indicates that the flower is a cultivated variety, rather than the common snowdrop.
Snowdrops are also known as Candlemas Bells, probably due to them flowering over Candlemas on 2nd February. However, their Latin name derives from the Greek word ‘Gala’ for milk, which refers to the milk-white petals of the flower.
Although the common snowdrop is certainly naturalised in the UK, there is some debate as to whether it is native. We know that snowdrops were present in British gardens by 1597, but they were not recorded as growing wild here until the mid-18th century. Most colonies probably originate from garden escapees, although the common snowdrop is native to a large part of Europe, where it grows in damp woods and meadows.
There are actually around 20 species of snowdrop in the world, distributed from southern-central Europe, through the eastern Mediterranean, down to the mountains of the Middle East. However the highest concentration of species and diversity is in Turkey and the Caucasus. In fact many soldiers brought exotic snowdrops back from the Crimean Wars and mixed them with the flowers found in gardens to create interesting hybrids and cultivated varieties.
Most colonies in the UK reproduce by division of the bulbs, rather than through setting seed. However, the flowers can still be visited by pollinators and can be an important early nectar source for bumblebee queens and recently emerged butterflies.