February in the Forest

February means snowdrops, hazel catkins and frogspawn, usually in that order. I think I write about them every year, mainly because I get very excited about each sign of spring. The common snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis, is probably not* a native of the British Isles but has naturalised itself very happily in woods, hedge banks, parks and gardens: wherever the soil is damp.

(* My older books such as Roger Phillips’ ‘Wild Flowers of Great Britain’ and Richard Mabey’s ‘Flora Britannica’ differ, coming down on the side of the snowdrop probably being a native.)

Anyone who has gardened around them will know their little white bulbs, which proliferate and hang on to life in the most unpromising situations. This is their means of spreading, benefiting from being washed along streams during floods for instance, rather than relying on pollination of the flowers and the dispersal of seeds, pollinators being few and far between at this time of year. The Woodland Trust website says: ‘Traditionally, snowdrops were used to treat headaches and as a painkiller. In modern medicine a compound in the bulb has been used to develop a dementia treatment’. It would be unwise to self-medicate with this remedy as the bulbs are poisonous.

They can make a spectacular show this month, earning one of their old names,  ‘February fairmaids’. Another, ‘Snow piercer’ is a translation of their French name and refers to the strong leaf tips which can push their way through snow. This is a very useful adaptation as they can be seen flowering in January and even December in some years. ‘Candlemas bells’ refers to their association with the feast of Candlemas on 2nd February (the feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary after the birth of Jesus). Snowdrops were planted around churches, abbeys, priories etc. and bunches were brought in as decorations for the feast day. Even where these ecclesiastical buildings have gone the flowers persist among the ruins. The site of Dowles Church by the River Severn in Bewdley is just one of the many places where their pure, white beauty can be enjoyed.

Linda Iles