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. Theplantexpert.com 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.

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