Sometimes, life knocks you around so much that you wonder if you’ll ever feel joy again. And, I have to admit, this is how I’ve been feeling a lot lately – certainly not helped by the Winter gloom and cold. But, this morning, driving over the Marlborough Downs in the sunshine with the radio on and the girls laughing in the car, I actually felt the stirrings of happiness. One of the reasons, I’m sure, was that we were on our way to see Snowdrops.
When you live in the country, you gradually learn the special places to visit at different times of year: the farm with the sweetest new-born lambs; the best wood for Bluebells; the prettiest Christmas market. But, even though I’ve grown used to the sight of Snowdrops in the gardens and roadside verges, at this time of year, I’d never found somewhere to see them en masse.
Nothing quite prepares you for what five acres of Snowdrops looks like; the otherwise colourless woodland, lit up by a carpet of dazzling white. From a distance, it looks like snow (no surprise there!). Close up, the nodding heads are green-edged and beautifully intricate. We ooh-ed and ah-ed and got down on our knees to get a better view. And to smell them. I didn’t realise Snowdrops smelt until today. It’s the loveliest scent: soft and sweet and sometimes there and sometimes not.
We walked around for an hour taking it all in. And then walked around some more because the sun had come out again and the snowdrops were now all edged in light. I can’t tell you how wonderful it was to be out in the fresh air, looking at something so extraordinary and forgetting, for a while, about everything but the moment.
Most great Snowdrop woods are on the sites of former monasteries. The owners of this wood, at Welford Park in Berkshire, think the Snowdrops were planted by Norman monks to use in their Church for the February feast of Candlemas and as a headache cure.
The plant name for the common Snowdrop is Galanthus Nivalis (from the Greek gala, meaning milk, and anthos , meaning flower). But their other old, country names are ‘Candelmas Bells’, ‘dingle-dangle’ and ‘February Fairmaid’.
Snowdrops have naturalised so freely around the country that we like to think of them as a thoroughly British flower. But they were probably introduced from Southern Europe, either by the Romans or, it’s now thought, later, in the 16th Century.
I’ve always wondered why you find Snowdrops so often in graveyards. Apparently, it’s because, in the language of flowers, they symbolise purity.
Traditionally, it’s bad luck to pick Snowdrops and bring them into the house, but I flout country lore and love putting tiny bunches in small vases. Another idea is to dig up a clump, pot it up and surround it with moss.
Snowdrops might look delicate, but they are tough little bulbs and pretty easy to grow. Because they’re woodland plants, they’re happiest in dappled shade and humus rich soil.
Snowdrops hate drying out. So, if you’re planning your own Snowdrop show, make sure that you plant them in ‘the green’. This means you order them now (my favourite supplier is www.clare-bulbs.co.uk) and plant them as soon as you get them. They will arrive in bundles with their leaves still on. I plant mine 2-3 inches deep in clusters of about three.
To help them naturalise, divide established clumps like these every year, splitting them into smaller sections and replanting them immediately (I am not so good at doing this. But I should if I want a display anything like this!)