Snowdrops are spreading far and wide across woods and roadsides with more and more
every year. However, unlike many alien or exotic plants which cause concern and even ire amongst conservationists, the snowdrop seems to be universally welcomed. Yet surely (I hear you ask) isn’t the snowdrop a native wildflower. Well, it seems not to be the case. They were first recorded growing wild only in the 1770s, and that was just in Gloucestershire and Worcestershire. Indeed, whilst one of the early flower books, ‘Gerard’s Herbal’ of 1597, has a picture and a description of a snowdrop, and these could have been wild, he might also have been referring to garden specimens perhaps imported from Europe. Gerard implied that he knew the plant only from gardens in London and in a later edition describes them as, ‘Timely flouring bulbous Violet, some call them Snowdrops’. Well it seems like the snowdrop was really an import from Europe but today it is doing exceptionally well. Having been ‘naturalised’ into the countryside by landowners they clearly established and spread. By Victorian times, local gardeners were digging them up to transport back to the gardens of urban villas being built across towns and cities.
It seems that snowdrops in Britain spread by seed only infrequently. This is largely because the weather is mostly too cold for their insect pollinators though after a milder winter a few seedlings may set. This suggests a native origin in continental Europe. However, garden
populations are also from limited genetic stock and so are generally sterile.
Despite having a very ‘Alpine’ feel to it, this little plant is really a dweller in damp woods and meadows rather than mountains. Today, having leapt the garden fence they are back and increasingly abundant.
This is now one of the most welcome signs that winter is closing and spring on its way. So for scientists Galanthus nivalis, or in country parlance, ‘Candelmas bells’, ‘Marty’s taper’, ‘Snow piercer’, ‘February fairmaids’, or even ‘Dingle-Dangle’, is back with us for just a few short weeks; whether native or not, this is a wildflower to be enjoyed.
Professor Ian D. Rotherham, of Sheffield Hallam University, researcher, writer and broadcaster on wildlife and environmental issues