Bring out the brass band! Snowdrops have arrived


SNOWDROPS have pushed through the dead leaves of oak and sycamore and look like the stars after black and stormy skies. You never get tired of them, do you?

First you see those little pale spears like shards of green glass sticking up a day or two before Christmas.

By the new year there is no holding them back. White buds are bent and folded like a baby’s head on a womb scan. They can’t wait to get out.

Sudden frost might make them blink and hold them torpid. But then the boughs rustle overhead and the hint of a spring wind whispers through the forest all around and the call becomes a demand and so they open, nodding as though trembling at the adventure they have begun.

Then one day walking around the garden and beyond into the coppice where the deer are running I see a vast sheet of white like a little blizzard spelter still lying in the hollow. All the coppice twigs are still bare and sharp and upright like the spears of old winter threatening with more to come.

But the snowdrops know better. They are not frost, they are flowers, and the very first January honeybees from the hives over the hill may well be seen fumbling at their entrances.

When I see these February Fairmaids I know that the first butterfly cannot be far behind, or the primroses in this cold wood high up on the Downs. Candlemas Bells the monks and nuns who planted them in their grounds used to call snowdrops, to celebrate that day of February 2.

People used to bring out the brass band to welcome snowdrops, or in Thomas Hardy’s day the church string sextet orchestra, with poses of snowdrops arranged around still growing in their earthen pots.

Some vicars helped the local school teachers, concerned that the Catechism could not be read by pupils approaching Confirmation, by planting snowdrops in the ‘yard into the capital shapes of letters. How long had this recognition of the almost magical properties of these first flowers of the year been going on? Nobody seems to know. The sternest plant dictionary tells us that snowdrops are “probably native”.

All eight species of Galanthus are confined to the Mediterranean except the true snowdrop, though there are many scores of varieties here and few can tell them all apart.

Seeing them in the wood here gives one a deal of satisfaction that so pure a natural life can so easily be made out of the scruff of dead leaves, animal droppings, old twigs and the muck which gets on one’s boots and must not be brought into the nice clean house.

Snowdrops are a proper symbol of purification indeed and give a person a feeling that all mess, filth, rubbish and nastiness can eventually be recycled back to the state of sanity and goodness. Looking at the snowdrops just now gave me a five minute hot mental bath which will set me up for the month, and you too I expect.

Richard Williamson