Snowdrop

(Galanthus nivalis) One of the origin legends is that an angel was comforting Eve after the Fall. No flower had bloomed since the expulsion from Paradise, and it was snowing. The angel caught a snowflake in his hand, breathed on it, and it fell to earth as the first snowdrop (Gordon. 1977). But it is an unlucky plant; more specifically, it is unlucky to bring indoors. Some say the bad luck applies only to cut snowdrops, and not to those grown in pots indoors (Vickery. 1995). Others, in Wales, say the sanction applies only to snowdrops taken indoors on St Valentine's Day (L Davies). The result of such rash actions were equally variable, ranging from the death of someone living in the house, as in Wiltshire and North Wales (Vickery. 1995) to the cows' milk being watery and affecting the colour of the butter (Burne. 1883). In Somerset the belief was that the girl child in the house would die within the year (Tongue. 1968). There was a similar superstition there about Lily of the Valley and white lilac, but this is so widespread that there is no point in trying to localise it. Taking snowdrops into a hospital is even more unlucky. If they were given to a patient, it was often taken to be a death sentence. Nurses would sometimes put a few ivy leaves with them to lessen the omen (Tongue. 1967). It is said that the association of snowdrops with death (they used to be called Death's Flower in Somerset) results from the flower's resemblance to a shroud (Vickery. 1985). "It looked for all the world like a corpse in its shroud" was how one of Charlotte Latham's informants put it (Latham), though one's imagination would have to be heightened to recognise it. Another reason given to her was that "it always kept itself close to the earth, seeming to belong more to the dead than to the living". Again, we hear that the reason is that they are so often found growing in old graveyards (Vickery. 1985).

But the plant is not always associated with ill luck. Along the Welsh border, when the Christmas decorations were removed at Candlemas, a bowl of snowdrops was sometimes brought in to drive out evil, and to mark the beginning of the spring season, giving the house what was known as "the white purification" (Drury. 1987). It was said, too, in lowland Scotland, that the finder of a snowdrop before the first of January would be in luck all the coming year (Tynan & Maitland). The mention of "purification" recalls the plant's connection with Candlemas (it is called Candlemas Bells in a number of areas (Macmillan; Britten & Holland; Banks. 1937)), for Candlemas is the festival that falls on 2 February, when we can expect snowdrops to be in bloom. The feast is also called the Purification of the Virgin Mary, hence the flower is known as Purification Flower (Prior). Fair Maids of February, or February Fair-maids (Macmillan), reduced in Norfolk to Fair Maids (Britten & Holland), are all references to the February festival of Candlemas, when it was the custom for the Fair Maids, dressed in white, to walk in procession to the feast (Prior). A stage on from this would mean that the plant was sacred to virgins in general, and at one time the receipt of snowdrops from a lady indicated to a man that his attentions were not wanted (Prior). Near Hereford Beacon (the one place on Britain where it may be native), a bowl of snowdrops brought into the house on Candlemas Day (evidently the only day on which such a thing could be done with safety), was thought to purify the house (Coats).

Snowdrop has been known to be prescribed for polio, though it has actually very little, if any, therapeutic value, but a decoction of the bulb has been used as an emetic in eastern Europe (Schauenberg & Paris). An ointment made from the crushed bulbs is used as a cure for frostbite and chilblains, and an extract from the bulbs has been used to treat glaucoma (Conway).

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