The snowdrop: winter’s timid child

RHS libraries and archives reveals a rich seam of information on snowdrops throughout history; their fame, uses and popularity

Snowdrops feature prominently in art and literature throughout history:  

  • Mary Robinson, in her 1797 novel Walsingham, declared ‘The Snowdrop, winter’s timid child, awakes to life bedew’d with tears’
  • Wordsworth crowned them ‘February fair-maidens’
  • E.A. Bowles (the Godfather of Galanthus) painted them
  • Martin Baxendale chose 'Galanthophiles' (enthusiastic collectors of snowdrops) as the subject matter for his semi-autobiographical comic novel
  • In 1979 and 2014 snowdrops were the subject of British postage stamps

In fact it almost seems as if the only writer not to have mentioned them is Shakespeare.
 

Snowdrops from the archives

Snowdrop illustration from Gerard's 'Herball'The first printed reference to the snowdrop appears on page 120 of Gerard’s Herball (1597) in which he describes the ‘Timely flowring Bulbus violet’ but includes an unmistakable illustration. In Johnson’s 1663 revision there is the addition of ‘some call them also Snowdrops’ for clarification (page 149).

From 1664 onwards snowdrops are referred to by a range of horticultural writers and scientists, but it is not until 1753 that Linnaeus helpfully provides the generic name Galanthus nivalis (common snowdrop). 

Popularity

Their popularity has waxed and waned. Collecting them was considered the preserve of gentleman amateurs in the late 19th century, but an upsurge of interest, as a result of returning soldiers bringing bulbs back from the Crimean War, increased their popularity.  

In 1891 the RHS held the first snowdrop conference, with speakers including: James Allen (the Snowdrop King) from Shepton Mallet, Frederick Burbidge and David Melville.

Uses for extracts from Galanthus

Snowdrops (Galanthus)Snowdrop lectin can be used as a pesticide - especially against beetles, butterflies and moths - and the alkaloid galantamine is recognised as effective in the management of Alzheimer’s disease.

Less well known is that, according to Oxfordshire writer Mollie Harris, snowdrops were sometimes used to mark the line to outside privies, ‘for a few weeks in winter, anyway’.
 

The 'drop' in snowdrop

Why do snowdrops droop their heads ‘as if they’ve born the whole great weight of this ungracious Winter’ (Idris Caffrey). Most likely to keep the pollen dry and ensure fertilisation - no mean feat in the intemperate climes of February.

More on snowdrops

Search the RHS Libraries online catalogue to discover more books about snowdrops and descriptions from our Art Collection.  

See details of our archives relating to E.A. Bowles on the Archives Hub.  

For advice on growing snowdrops see our snowdrop advice profile.

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