This year, this distinguished first will not go to Tom Hodgson of West Tisbury.
Even though Tom has been patiently waiting, he will be out of town when the big event happens. He says it should be soon, as he has been tracking the progress of what I consider the little flower that could.
Snowdrops, those incredible winter wonders, are about to bloom. Tom has been watching and waiting. He is an avid galanthophile, or lover of snowdrops, a word coined by British plantman and snowdrop collector E.A. Bowles. The scientific name of common snowdrops is Galanthus nivalus, which translates into “milk white flowers of the snow,” owing to the flower’s resemblance to three drops of milk hanging from a stem.
Last week, Tom noted that although these hearty plants have come up, they are not yet flowering, and are significantly off their blooming times from previous years. Around these parts, the first bloom is usually reported in the early weeks of January. This happening is heralded not only by Tom, but by many as the first flower of the season, a sign that spring really will come.
It’s all in the way you choose to look at it, I guess: perhaps it is actually the last flower of the season, rather than the first. But in the interest of being positive and in the spirit of hope, let’s go forward and not backwards — politically as well as botanically — and call it the kick-off or the inaugural flower of all of the blooming beauties.
Tom is not alone is his adoration of this First Flower. Hans Christian Andersen wrote a story of the original snowdrop that bloomed in the winter. It was encouraged to come out by the Sunbeams who called to it, “Beautiful flower, how graceful and delicate you are! You are the first, you are the only one! You are our love! You are the bell that rings out for summer, beautiful summer, over country and town. All the snow will melt; the cold winds will be driven away; we shall rule; all will become green, and then you will have companions, syringas, laburnums, and roses; but you are the first, so graceful, so delicate!”
I couldn’t say it better than the ’beams, so I won’t try.
Snowdrops hail from southeastern Europe and come to us via Britain. They are also called the fair maid of February (they bloom later over there), and alternately, bulbous violet, even though they are members of the botanical family Amaryllidaceae.
They spread rapidly, creating a carpet of white flowers, and are not appealing to the taste buds of either deer or rodents. How these perennials get out of the cold ground is even more interesting. From the underground bulbs comes a single stem whose leaves have points at the edges thick and tough enough to break through the cold winter soils.
While some herbalists concluded that this plant has no medicinal value, others did not concur. It is listed as an emmenagogue (herb to encourage menstruation) and also can be used as a “digestive, resolutive, and consolidante.” The intrigue increases when you learn that the mysterious and magical herb in Homer’s Odyssey was thought to contain galantamine, a compound found in some varieties of snowdrops and other flowers. This compound might have been an antidote to Circe’s poison. Drugs that contain galantamine are currently used to treat Alzheimer’s and dementia.
Even if Tom misses the momentous occasion of the blooming of the first snowdrop, he (and all of us galanthophiles) can always enjoy them year-round simply by reading William Wordsworth’s poem, To a Snow-Drop:
Nor will I then thy modest grace forget,
Chaste Snow-drop, venturous harbinger of Spring,
And pensive monitor of fleeting years!
Wordsworth’s poem in its entirety proved to be like the Sunbeams in Andersen’s tale — impossible to improve upon, when it comes to description of and praise for the snowdrop!