Subtle Sign of Spring

In the south of England the snowdrops normally bloom in January. Not this year. “Everything has been buried under snow but the biggest problem is the fact everything there have been such heavy frosts,” said Richard Todd, the head gardener, at Anglesey Abbey, a National Trust property in Lode, Cambridgeshire. “It was like having four inches on concrete around all the bulbs. The ground was frozen rock solid and nothing could move in that.”

Galanthus in snow

This winter (2009-10) northwestern Europe and northeastern United States are experiencing what a clear negative index of the North Atlantic Oscillation, an atmospheric pressure gradient between the Azores and Iceland. In a negative index pattern, both cells—the Azores is a high-pressure cell and the Iceland is a low—are weak, making the gradient between them small. In this case few storms track northeastward across the gradient, leaving northwestern Europe (and the Atlantic coast of the U.S.) relatively dry and exposed to Arctic outbreaks. The colder temperatures, however, usually result in greater amounts of snow to these two regions. And the later the snowdrops blossom.

Snowdrops are among the first plants to flower in the spring. Perhaps only winter aconite precedes them. In both northern Europe and the northeastern U.S., where they are widely planted as ornamentals, they often flower amid patches of leftover snow. They tend to naturalize readily and spread into adjacent wooded areas, presenting little islands of green against the matted brown leaves of the forest floor.

At the Winsbere estate, England

The genus Galanthus has 19 natural species and over 500 varietals. testily claims that they are all white and isn’t that boring, which is not quite true. Several of the varieties are patterned with green or yellow, some rather heavily. Some of the varieties are “doubled,” having multiple whorls of petals, which gives them the appearance of tiny carnations.

Galanthus nivalis or the “garden snowdrop” is the most widely planted wild type. It is native to continental Europe and Turkey and was introduced to England in (perhaps) the 16th century. The Linnean genus name, gala = milk and anthus = flower, is descriptive enough, and the trivial name means “of the snows.”

The plants are 3 to 4 inches high (some varietals are taller) with three narrow basal leaves and an unbranched stem that holds the drooping flower. The flower itself consists of six tepals (not petals), three of which are larger and flare outward, while three are shorter, more tightly held, and often bear a green chevron or other mark.

Snowdrops inspire affection for at least two reasons. One is the relatively narrow range of color and flower form demonstrated by the varietals; this is a flower for people who prefer tasteful restraint in a blossom. The other reason is its early blooming time; after a long winter colored primarily in grays, the snowdrops offer a respite that does not shock: the leaves are a grayish-green in the wild species and many varieties and the flowers are subtly more white than the remaining crusty patches of snow faded with sidewalk ashes and tree duff. Snowdrops announce that spring is nigh with a murmur not a shout.

Handful of Snowdrops – back in the day

A Handful of Snowdrops was a shoegazer band that formed in Quebec City in 1984, released three albums and called it quits in 1993. The shoegazer bands were so-called because they played with banks of effects pedals on the floor in front of them, and consequently they spent most of their shows staring at the floor, rather than engaging with their audience. The songs were lyrically precursors to those of the “emo” bands of the last 15 years, dwelling on the miserable aftermath of relationships or, at best, the doubts that haunt one about the purpose of life. In other words, in their quiet inward perspective and undemonstrative, muted affect, the band chose their name well.


A Directional Rose

A compass rose with direction names, not wind names

The “rose of the winds” or “wind rose” is the older name of the compass rose. In a time when boats and ships were moved by wind,  the wind from a specific direction was given its own name. Some of these—Mistral, Sirocco—are still common parlance in modern Mediterranean culture because of their importance to agriculture (grape-growing, in particular) and because their distinct character has allowed them to remain personified entities, much as the Santa Ana winds of southern California do.

But when these winds represented the motor force that drove freight across the Mediterranean they were one of the ruling principles of commerce. Their seasonal occurrence influenced the flow of trade among southern European, northern African and Middle Eastern ports. In the 14th century a graphic representation of 32 wind directions (and their names) began appearing on navigational charts. The ornate radiating polygons of color evoked the appearance of petals on rose.

Wind rose on portolan map by Jorge Aguiar

The compass roses began appearing on portolan maps as points with 32 straight lines radiating outward. The portolan maps showed the details of coastlines, including all ports, harbors and coves that could possibly be of interest or use to a vessel traveling long distances. They were devised by combining the written accounts of landmarks and distances preserved in pilot books (peripluses) with graphic depictions of the world (called orbis terrae or O-T maps) in the latest 13th century in Pisa. Through the following century the decorative aspects of the rose of the winds became progressively more elaborate.

Wind rose with initials of named winds (and cross for Levanter).

There were eight named winds. Counterclockwise around the wind rose from the north they are the Tramontana, Gregale (NE), Levanter (E), Sirocco (SE), Ostro (S), Libeccio (SW), Poniente (W), and Mistral (NW). These were then divided further into eight more half-winds and sixteen quarter-winds. All of the named winds had predecessors in Greek and Latin cultures where they were personified as part of folklore, occasionally figuring in minor roles alongside the gods of Olympus. (Zeus, for example, could be counted on to dispatch Zephyrus (the west wind) to blow a fleet off course to influence the outcome a battle in which he had some petty stake.) The names above are those of the western Mediterranean. They are by no means standard throughout the region and were certainly different in the North, Baltic and Black seas. One feature that transcended region was the frequent placing of a fleur-de-lis at the north or Tramontana position.

The Chinese invented the compass in the 11th century during the Song Dynasty. It took the form of a magnetic needle floating in a bowl of water. How the technology made its way to the Mediterranean (and apparently nearly simultaneously to the North Sea) is not precisely know. However it got there, whether directly from the Chinese to the Europeans, via the Arabs or even by independent invention in Europe as some hold, the compass became part of European navigation eventually the “wind rose” was transformed into the “compass rose,” usually labeled with north, south east and west instead of the names of the winds.

With traditional colors and fleur-de-lis

The “dry” mariners compass was invented in Europe in 1300. It consisted of a magnetized needle suspended under a glass cover and over a wind rose diagram. On a ship the whole apparatus was suspended within a gimbal to keep it level as the vessel heeled, pitched and rolled. Credit for the invention is generally given to Flavio Gioja, a pilot from Amalfi on coast south of Naples.

The colors of the wind rose design were initially not purely aesthetic, but practical, as this was a graphic that would have to be read in all weather and at all times of the day and night (by flickering oil lamp) on the deck of a moving ship. The eight primary directions (which were entirely equated with the wind that blew from them) were presented in black to be clearly visible. The half-winds were generally in blues and greens and the quarters-winds in reds.