It’s that time of year in the northern hemisphere when winter starts to shed its cloak and the tiniest of flowers rush prematurely into bloom despite the frosty mornings and bitter temperatures. A clump of snowdrops can gladden the spirit on even the greyest of days but they are the humblest of flowers, easily overlooked in long grass, so when I heard about a Snowdrop Festival taking place at Altamont Gardens in County Carlow, I couldn’t resist paying a visit to see what all the fuss was about. I was quite unprepared to fall down a rabbit hole into the bewildering world of snowdrop fanciers (or galanthophiles as those in the know call them).
Altamont Gardens is home to over a hundred different varieties of snowdrop, or galanthus, the botanical name which comes from the Greek gala, milk and anthos, flower. But in order to truly appreciate the different varieties out there, there’s no use admiring the snowdrop drifts from above, because the individual characteristics of different snowdrops are generally only to be seen close up and down low.
And so, in the true spirit of the festival, thanking my lucky stars I was wearing tattered old jeans, I got down on the ground and rolled around in the mud to get a better look at these shy little blooms.
The snowdrop is the star of many legends around the world; here are a few of my favourites.
- The Norse goddess Freya was taken from her home in Vanaheim and brought as a hostage to Asgard. During her first long, bleak winter there, she pined for the flower-filled countryside she had grown up in, and wept bitter tears of homesickness. When her tears hit the snow-covered ground, white snowdrops sprang forth to comfort her.
- By the time snow was created in the universe, all the colours had been used up. So the snow visited each of the flowers to see if they would share their colours and one by one, they declined. All, that is, except for the shy little snowdrop, who offered to share her sparkling white with the snow. The snow was delighted and in return declared that the snowdrop would be the only flower allowed to blossom while snow lay on the ground.
- The Roman goddess Flora held a grand dance to celebrate Carnival and gave each of the flowers carnival costumes to wear. Snow hadn’t been invited but wanted to join in the celebrations. The dainty snowdrop, dressed in her bright white costume, felt sorry for the snow and offered to share her costume with him. She wrapped him under her white carnival cloak and together they danced the night away. Romance blossomed and they made a pact to meet up at the same time every year, with Snow promising to wrap his beloved Snowdrop under his own white cloak to protect her from the cold.
I crawled back up the rabbit hole with muddy knees and a whole new appreciation for this humble little flower. Not enough, however, to justify paying the insane prices some of the rarer varieties command. In February 2015 someone paid £1,390 for a single bulb of a variety called Golden Fleece, with other rare varieties fetching hundreds of dollars per bulb. As for me, I’m perfectly happy catching the odd glimpse of common old Galanthus nivalis hiding in the long grass.