‘Few sights lift the spirits on a cold winter’s day quite like the first snowdrops pushing through.’
Hmm, if I had £1 for every article about snowdrops I’d seen that starts with a sentence like that I’d be a rich man indeed. I can easily understand why some folk might feel uplifted at the sight of those sturdy green shoots making their appearance, as snowdrops are widely regarded as a harbinger of spring and most people want that to arrive sooner rather than later. I personally know a great many people for whom a carpet of snowdrops is the only white carpet they want to see in January. Not me!
Sorry folks, but few sights dampen my spirits on a cold (or any other) winter’s day quite like the first snowdrops pushing through. Not because I don’t like snowdrops and certainly not because I think they’re unattractive wee things, but more because in January and February, which are traditionally our coldest two months of the year, the last thing I want to see are flowers reaching for the sky.
Don’t get me wrong, I love wildflowers but in the bleak midwinter I prefer my wildflowers as yet unseen, buried beneath my preferred type of white carpet – six inches of snow thank you very much! Or I’d like their inevitable emergence at least stalled somewhat by weeks of subzero temperatures and bone-chilling, desiccating winds.
Winter is, after all, the time when the natural world hunkers down or enters a state of torpor. Many mammals, amphibians and reptiles sleep it out. Many birds leave for warmer climes. Grass stops growing and trees go dormant. Y’know, typical winter behaviour really.
So when I see snowdrops pushing through an alarm bell goes off in my head and a pessimistic voice screams ‘WINTER’S OVER! NOOOOO!!!!! Their guerrilla appearance grates just that little bit more when, as is the case this year, what we would call ‘winter’ arguably hasn’t even begun by any reasonable benchmark you care to mention. So get back in the ground, snowdrops! And kindly have the good grace to let us have an actual winter before you think of poking through!
Okay, I’ve calmed down now. The silly thing about my pessimistic reaction, of course, is that those green shoots don’t really confirm that spring is on its way, nor that winter is on its way out. The days might be getting longer but the northern hemisphere is still very much cooling down in January.
A true winter bloomer
Snowdrops aren’t like the flurry of flowers that arrive with the first proper warmth of early spring, such as colts-foot or primroses. They’re a genuine winter bloomer, able to defy the seemingly impossible and burst forth at the least likely time of year. And the key to their early emergence is the fact that they have a bulb underground.
Bulbs are believed to have evolved as an adaptation to cope in climates with short growing seasons, as they are essentially underground food stores. It takes a lot of effort and investment for a plant to absorb and store all that energy as a bulb, but it means it can react quickly when conditions become more favourable. It also ensures the plant can be sustained once it has committed to pushing up above ground, despite the marginal conditions for growth.
You might wonder whether it’s worth flowering so early if conditions are so harsh, but early emergence can be a good tactic in order to ensure survival of the next generation. The woodland canopy is bare, which means what little weak sunlight is available actually makes it down to ground level. And because there’s not really anything else flowering or even growing, not even grass, it means there’s little if any competition for that weak sunlight, and neither is there much competition for space or nutrients.
The snowdrop’s strategy isn’t without risk, of course, because even after they’ve flowered the snow and cold can (and usually do) return in earnest. That especially seems the case in recent years, where we have enjoyed / suffered (delete according to preference) cold springs.
My home patch of snowdrops is next to a farm road, right at the spot where the tractors and ploughs dump all the snow that they’ve cleared. In most years there are one or two occasions when the snow is piled a metre or more deep, right on top of flowering snowdrops. Thereafter as it thaws and refreezes it gradually compacts down and becomes harder and more icy. You wouldn’t think such dainty wee things could survive, let alone thrive thereafter, especially when they look so woefully squished and bedraggled after being buried by a winter storm. But a natural ‘antifreeze’ prevents their cells from being damaged and means they’re remarkably capable of springing back into life, defiantly thrusting those sharp green spears up through hard snow. P
Prolonged cold can even help the bloom to last longer. Last year my snowdrops flowered in mid-February but, after a cold March that slowed their development, they were still flowering in early April! They’re clearly in their element in the winter, and this is perfectly illustrated by their French name, ‘perce-neige’. Snow driller!
Another disadvantage of an early emergence is the lack of pollinators buzzing about. True, we do get some freakishly mild winters when everything goes topsy-turvy and the bees are lured out of hibernation, but in most Januarys and Februarys there aren’t really any pollinating insects around. So why bother?
Well, snowdrops have a Plan B – they can reproduce ‘asexually’, where the bulb divides to produce a genetically identical off-shoot. That’s why snowdrops tend to grow in small clumps, even within those distinctive white carpets. You’ll likely also have noticed how even after the snowdrops’ white flowers have gone over, the leaves hang around for quite some time. This enables the plant to carry on photosynthesising and storing energy underground in readiness for next year’s growth.
It’s a dependable method of reproduction, one that avoids the need for pollination or seed production. However, because the long-term health of most species on the planet ultimately depends on maintaining genetic diversity in order to withstand diseases and changing environmental conditions, it’s in a snowdrop’s best interests to reproduce sexually (using pollen) whenever it can. Wild snowdrops are indeed capable of doing this. They produce seeds that attract ants, believe it or not, who then carry the seeds away to feed a small fleshy part of said seeds to their larvae, thus aiding in snowdrop dispersal and reproduction. Ain’t nature marvellous?
However, many of the specimens in this country are sterile and cannot produce seeds. To be honest I’m not entirely sure whether this is a naturally occurring condition that afflicts our common species or whether it’s because most of our ‘wild’ populations are apparently descended from sterile clones that were brought from overseas and subsequently planted. Yep, that’s right. They were brought from overseas!
What have the Romans ever done for us?
Snowdrops are so ubiquitous and so well suited to our climate that you’d think they’d always been here, but the consensus these days is that they were brought over from central Europe many moons ago. You do find sources claiming it was the Romans who brought them over, which isn’t surprising because rightly or wrongly they get the blame (or thanks) for introducing almost everything to our shores. Rabbits, brown hares, fallow deer, stinging nettles, domestic cats, ground elder, the list goes on. When in doubt, blame the Romans. Or failing that, the Normans.
However, most modern planty people now cite the late 16th Century as having the first documented cultivation of snowdrops in the British Isles, whereas the first snowdrop observed in the ‘wild’ was recorded in 1778. This all makes sense when you think that most (but not all) of the snowdrops you encounter in this country are found close to existing or historic human habitations. There are 20 or so species of snowdrop worldwide but it is Galanthus nivalis, known as the ‘common snowdrop’ that most of us will be familiar with, and having long escaped the confines of gardens it has undoubtedly become ‘naturalised’ in this country.
This year’s bloom
It won’t come as a surprise to learn that I don’t actively go looking for snowdrops this time of year, and so I wasn’t really aware of this year’s emergence until someone tweeted me a photo of some in their garden in Alloa, on 2nd January. The stems in the photo were still mostly green but some of them had white petals emerging. A few days later I was on a Ramblers walk in Dunfermline and we spotted some green stems pushing through. One of the members remarked that their snowdrops in Dollar had appeared in their garden a few weeks ago, and that it was the first time he could ever remember this happening before Christmas. That prompted me to check my own patch of Lomond Hills snowdrops this week and yep, they are indeed poking through, and some have already got their distinctive white tips.
For all my snowdrop snarling, these lovely wee plants are actually one of a few key indicator species that I record the first sighting / emergence of every year. Others include curlew, swallows and daffodils. I’ve been at my current location in Fife since 2010, and since then there has only been one year when the snowdrops actually flowered as early as January. That was in 2014, when they did so in the final week of that month. Every other year the flowers haven’t opened up until February, the latest of which was in 2018, last year, when they didn’t flower till week three. Barring a return of wintry weather to Fife, which doesn’t look likely till the end of January at the earliest, my snowdrops are on track to again flower in January, which would possibly make it their earliest emergence since I moved here almost a decade ago.
It tallies with what others have observed locally, and it’s a trend reflected elsewhere in the country. The Woodland Trust have a great ‘live tracking’ map for key natural events as they unfold across the country, which is fed by public data. Someone just north of the Great Glen recorded flowering snowdrops on 29th December, and just in the last week the first reports have come in from the Central Belt. It’s not surprising that people think they’re out early, given the November and December mean temperatures for Scotland were 1.3C and 1.4C above average respectively.
Don’t worry though, I don’t hold snowdrops’ early emergence against them. Well, not for tooooo long anyway. After I’ve got over the initial shock of seeing those green shoots, and by the time that they’ve flowered….which usually coincides with at least one potent blizzard……I feel nothing but respect and admiration for their stoic, elegant beauty.
Indeed, I even start to actively seek them out because, like bluebells a few months later, they are one of the few species in this country capable of transforming an entire landscape. Snowdrops have even become the focal point of a national celebration, the Scottish Snowdrop Festival, and people travel great distance across the country to see them. I can’t say I blame them really. Snowdrops in full bloom are a truly stunning sight, more than enough to melt even the coldest of winter hearts……and by that point in the spring thaw it is truly useless to resist.