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Stalwart Snowdrops

By Audrey Stallsmith

galanthus nivalis

Lone Flower, hemmed in with snows and white as they
But hardier far, once more I see thee bend
Thy forehead, as if fearful to offend,
Like an unbidden guest.

William Wordsworth, "To a Snowdrop"

As I was tossing out water from the fish tank yesterday morning--into weather so frigid that the room-temperature aqua steamed when it hit the ground--I noticed that the undaunted snowdrops were in bud already. With their slender leaves and small flowers, these plants look deceptively fragile. But, like many frail-appearing humans, they have a constitution of iron!

Although called "fair maids of February" or "Candlemas bells" in some climates, they actually appear in March here. And the tiny splashes of green at their otherwise pristine centers are a fitting celebration of St. Patrick's Day, and a promise to the white-weary that there is much more green on its way.

The official name of the common type, galanthus nivalis, derives from the Greek gala ("milk"), anthos ("flower") and the Latin nivalis ("resembling snow"). A pretty story holds that, when Adam and Eve were driven out of the garden of Eden into a more bitter world, an angel changed snowflakes into snowdrops for them as a sign of better things to come. Being, with the possible exception of winter aconite, the first blooms of spring, they stand in the Language of Flowers for "hope," "consolation," or "the passing of sorrow."

Strangely enough, however, it was considered bad luck to bring snowdrops into the house. This could be attributable to the fact that they grew freely in churchyards (graveyards), or that their small size and pallor brought them closer to the dead! Also a change in the weather--as at the beginning of spring--tended to bring on more illness. So the flowers could have gotten blamed for what should have been attributed to their time of year.

The common type is native to southern Europe, but has since naturalized in many other climates, including our own. Other varieties generally come from either the Mediterranean or the former Soviet republic. Some of the better known are galanthus elwesii (giant snowdrop), galanthus plicatus (Crimean snowdrop), and galanthus reginae-olgae (autumn snowdrop).

The ancient knew them as "bulbous violets," though some believe that the magical "moly" mentioned in Homer's Odyssey may be the snowdrop. And the enchanting little plant does seem to have magical properties, as the galantamine derived from it now shows promise as a treatment for Alzheimer's Disease. It has also been used to treat neruomuscular ailments such as neuralgia, as a muscle stimulant, and as a folk remedy for polio.

Perhaps the flower's most healing property, however, is its promise to the snow-sick that the worst is nearly over. "Be strong just a little bit longer," it croons to us. "I am only the beginning of much greater glories to come."