An Irishwoman's Diary

 

THE APPEARANCE of the tiny fragile white flowers in frost-bitten gardens throughout the country seems particularly welcome this year. Heralded as the first flowers of the spring, snowdrops often start to peep up in mid-January before the clumps of the bell-shaped flowers come into full bloom in February.

The German or Norwegian (depending on your sources) children’s tale about how the snow got its colour gives the humble yet resilient flower a particular status among spring flowers. And Antrim-based storyteller, Liz Weir’s re-telling of it is so convincing that it prompts young children to look underneath the snowdrop for its telltale green mark.

The story tells how in the beginning everything was given a colour, except for the snow. Imagine snow with no colour, Weir asks children in her storytelling sessions. Imagine making a see-through snowman? Well, the snow didn’t want to stay colourless, of course, so it began to ask flowers to give it some colour. The Red Rose refused on the basic principle that people didn’t think of the cold when they look at roses. The Yellow Daffodil refused too, even when the snow pleaded that snow-coloured roof-tops would look well yellow. The snow had almost given up when it saw the tiny white flowers poking out of the ground.

If snow was white, it pleaded, people would associate it with being clean and fresh and they would see its white glow and know it was snowy before they even opened their curtains in the morning. The Snowdrop scrapped a tiny piece of white from her head and threw it at the snow and lovely white flakes of snow began to fall. In appreciation, the snow said that from that day onwards, no matter how cold it is, the frost would never nip the blossoms of the snowdrop which would always remain the first flower of spring. Once children hear this magical story, they will go in search of the little piece of green on the flower where the snowdrop scrapped off her colour and gave it to

the snow.

There are other tales about the snowdrop.

A Moldovan legend say that snowdrops were born out of a battle between the Winter Witch and Lady Spring. In the battle, spring cut her finger and a few drops of her blood fell on the snow, which melted. On this place grew the first snowdrop as a mark of how spring won the battle with Winter.

Although originally a native of Southern Europe, the snowdrop grows easily in Ireland. It was the monks who are credited with first bringing it from Rome to England and Ireland. Snowdrops became known as church flowers because they were first planted around old monasteries. Traditionally on Candlemas (February 2nd), the image of the Virgin Mary was taken down and a handful of snowdrop blooms were scattered in its place. Yet, their presence in churchyards became unlucky over time and some people still believe it is unlucky to bring snowdrops indoors.

In floriography, snowdrops are seen to be symbols of hope and consolation. They are the birth flowers of those born in January and an active ingredient (galantamine) from snowdrops is used in the treatment of mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease.

Maybe it is the incredible combination of fragility and resilience that prompted William Wordsworth to write the following lines about them: “Lone flower, hemmed in with snows, and white as they/ But hardier far, once more I see thee bend, /Thy forehead as if fearful to offend,/ Like an unbidden guest . . . /Chaste Snowdrop, venturous harbinger of spring, And pensive monitor of fleeting years!”