Snowdrops Never Fail
Brrr! This feels like the coldest winter in a long time, and it’s been hanging on for longer than usual as well. I know, people back east would be telling me to SHUT UP but here in the maritime Northwest, winters are generally quite mild. January usually brings the warming Chinook winds and the average daytime winter temperature is (or was) 44 degrees. That feels quite comfortable as long as you’re moving around, and I’ve been able to garden all winter in a light vest or sweater for decades. This year, every time there’s a sun break, I rush hopefully out to do a little light tidying in the garden troughs but it continues to be so cold, with such bitter winds, that I can’t stay out very long before my fingers go numb.
Yesterday, despite grey skies and icy wind, I couldn’t stand to stay indoors a minute longer and went out to see what if anything was showing signs of life. Sadly, there isn’t much; even the hellebores are holding back far longer than usual, though a few buds are barely emerging here and there. As always, there are a few calendula blossoms trying to open, though dwarfed by the cold. The only flowers that look fresh and crisp are the stalwart snowdrops, which never fail to appear in January, bravely emerging through snow and ice in the coldest places.
Bringing Bulbs Back
Though some snowdrops are native to Europe, others found their way into English gardens through the challenges of war. Old English gardening books are full of stories about soldiers returning from battles in the Middle East bringing unusual forms of snowdrop back to England. It’s hard to imagine modern soldiers gathering bulbs; over the last two centuries, soldiering has changed quite a lot. Apparently back then, people in various military services overseas found time to explore the hills and mountains and plains. When they noticed interesting variations on plants familiar from home gardens, they sketched them and often brought them back to England. Old English memoirs and novels often mention the practice in village schools of nature observation. Children were encouraged to gather wildflowers, nuts, berries and lovely leaves for the ‘nature tables’ set up in many a classroom, and elementary students often kept nature journals and sketchbooks as well. These days, children at Waldorf schools still do this and for some of them at least, the practice of nature observation opens their eyes to the beauties of the natural world for life. What a gift!
My own children, and now my grandkids always collect interesting seedpods, catkins, lichen-covered sticks, colorful or skeletonized leaves and other bits and pieces, not just from woods and meadows but even as we walk around the neighborhood. They like to bring them home to play with, draw, or simply admire, and as their own pockets are fairly small, such things usually end up in my more capacious pockets. Indeed, I’ve often discovered an overlooked chestnut or slightly squishy berry when doing laundry (checking pockets has become a strong habit as so many things that do NOT belong in the laundry end up in pockets).
After so many house moves, my once-large snowdrop collection has dwindled, but I have the satisfaction of knowing that their legacy lives on wherever I’ve lived. Snowdrops, like crocus, are good naturalizers, spreading slowly but surely as long as their foliage is allowed to ripen before they go dormant. They can spread and persist for decades, even centuries, despite adversity; when a friend who lives on the site of a century-old former nursery cleared the neglected land of its heavy ivy blanket, he discovered thousands of snowdrops covering half an acre or more.
In this tiny garden, I’m only growing common snowdrops, Galanthus nivalis, but they’re very lovely, common or not. The outer petals have the substance and texture of slubbed silk, while the inner petals are marked on their fronts with green fish or hearts and neatly penciled with green lines or dots on the inside. For all their delicacy of modeling, their toughness is impressive. On a cold morning after a hard frost, the flowers collapse, seemingly melted to mush. A few hours later, the (relatively) warming sun revives them and they rise again, crisp and fragrant. That example of endurance and resilience is especially welcome in these chilling times; despite freezing weather or smothering blanket of choking, oppressive ivy, these lovely little bulbs, seemingly so fragile, persist. Onward, right?