Nature Notes

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The Independent Culture
WITH WINTERS growing steadily warmer, snowdrops bloom earlier every year. They used to be known as "February fairmaids", but the pioneers of 1999 were up and out on 1 January. There has been so little frost that the specially hardened tips of the leaves, which evolved for breaking through frozen soil, were hardly needed.

As members of the daffodil family, snowdrops flourish in damp ground, in woods, gardens and along the sides of streams. Because early botanical records do not mention them, specialists remain uncertain about whether the plants are native to Britain, or whether today's large drifts spread from imported clumps. What nobody doubts is their astonishing longevity; cultivated stock is generally sterile, but wild colonies reproduce indefinitely by the division of the bulbs. At this time of year in woods and at the corners of fields patches of white are often the only sign of former dwellings; even when every other trace of a cottage has gone, the plants remain, more durable than stone.

The white flowers have long had religious significance, particularly among Catholics. For centuries they have been associated with the Feast of Candlemas, on 2 February; nuns are said to have planted them as symbols of purity, and the ruins of many an abandoned abbey still come alive with drifts of them in early spring.

Duff Hart-Davis