Lifting the petals of the Snowdrop - the "Candlemass Bell"

Dr Trevor Dines

Dr Trevor Dines

Plantlife Botanical Specialist

21st February 2018


© Laurie Campbell

The bobbing white blooms of snowdrops fluttering on the road verge or carpeting the woodland floor put a spring in the step of us all during the bitter winter months.

Their early appearance and dazzling petals make them a firm favourite with nature lovers and wildflower watchers across the United Kingdom. But despite their soaring popularity, some of the snowdrop's charms remain swaddled under snow.

  • The species has long been associated with winter – the Latin name, Galanthus nivalis, translates as ‘milk flower of the snow.’ Contrary to popular belief, wild species start flowering in October and extend into March or even April.
  • Snowdrops do produce seeds provided there are pollinators around. Early emerging queen bumblebees will help spread them if the weather is warm and dry enough.
  • Although often considered native, snowdrops are actually recent arrivals. Despite its seemingly ancient pedigree, its first known cultivation was in 1597 and was first recorded in the wild (in Gloucestershire and Worcestershire) in 1778.
  • Perhaps 2,000 garden varieties have been named – with more new cultivars (cultivated varieties) named during the late winter months each year.
  • Vernacular names include candlemass bells, mary's taper, snow piercer, February fairmaids and dingle-dangle and point to the snowdrops' appearance in the depths of winter.
  • Avid collectors of snowdrops are known as galanthophiles. These collectors can spend hundreds of pounds on a single rare bulb. The highest amount paid for a named snowdrop variety was £1,390 for a variety called ‘golden fleece’. Even more was paid for the right to name a new variety.
  • In traditional medicine, snowdrops were used to treat headaches and as a painkiller. In modern medicine, a naturally occurring substance within the plant, called galantamine, is used to help treat the symptoms of Alzheimer’s disease. However, the bulbs themselves are poisonous to humans and can cause nausea, diarrhoea and vomiting if eaten; a fact which perhaps lead to the persistent superstition that a single snowdrop bloom in a house represents death.
  • In the Language of Flowers snowdrops symbolise chastity, consolation, death, friendship in adversity, hope and purity.

Going on a wintry walk? Why not take along Plantlife's winter wildflower spotter sheet and see what common species from catkins to snowdrops you can spot out and about?