Miles Kington: Why do snowdrops fruitlessly flower in freezing February?

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The Independent Online

Time for another nature ramble today! Let's join knowledgeable Uncle Geoffrey, as he takes his nephew and niece, Robert and Susan, out across the frosty English landscape to look for signs of new life in the apparently deserted countryside.

"Look!" said Uncle Geoffrey. "The first snowdrops!"

And so they were, a little clump of brave green and white flower heads at the edge of the field, under the lee of the woods.

"It makes you feel glad," said Uncle Geoffrey. "It makes you feel hope for the days to come."

"It makes you wonder why snowdrops bother," said Robert. "What's in it for a flower to flourish in February?"

"Nice alliteration," said Susan.

"You can see why flowers come out in summer," pursued Robert. "It's the time when insects collect their nectar and do all that cross-pollination. But what's the point of fruitlessly flowering in freezing February?"

"All right, that's enough alliteration," pouted Susan.

"There are no insects around! There's nothing for a self-respecting flower except free publicity. Why do they do it?"

"I would imagine," said Uncle Geoffrey, wondering as he often did why nothing was as simple to the children as it was to him, "that nature cannot cope with a crowded cultivation calendar."

"Do you think alliteration is infectious?" wondered Susan.

"Meaning," said Uncle Geoffrey, "that it would not make sense for all flowers to come out at the same time, and therefore there is a spread of blossoming through the year. Snowdrops are simply at the early end of the spectrum. Take away snowdrops and you would be complaining that primroses came out early. Take away primroses, and you would be complaining about wild garlic ..."

"Never would I complain about wild garlic," said Robert. "A carpet of wild garlic is one of the best things in spring. It looks great and smells great. Bluebells are all right, but don't smell of anything much. Least of all remind you of roast lamb, as garlic does."

At that moment Susan gave a sharp cry and came to a halt. She had slightly twisted her ankle on a molehill.

"Silly moles!" she said.

Robert pondered. "Yes, they are silly," he said, "because they insist on leaving their molehills in the most obvious places. In the middle of people's prize lawns. In fields where cows are grazing. They draw attention to themselves and start being talked of as vermin. They should stick to ploughed fields. A molehill in ploughland goes unnoticed."

"That's almost clever," said Susan.

"But a mole that leaves molehills on a lawn is asking for it. It's like an act of terrorism. Or at least an outbreak of graffiti."

"If only it was an art installation it would get away with it," said Susan. "Eleven Cones of Earth, by A Mole. With Help from the Arts Council."

"Worms always get away with it," said Robert. "Nobody ever says - Oh look, there are horrible worm casts all over our lovely lawn! And yet there is not much difference except in scale between a molehill and a worm cast. Moles and worms both live underground. Both disturb the ground. Both throw up little piles of earth. But the worms get a five-star rating from the critics, while moles get non-stop death threats. If moles were an ethnic minority, they would be under police protection."

"I wish you wouldn't say things like that," said Uncle Geoffrey, looking round nervously, even thought they were quite alone.

"And moles get stereotyped as whistle-blowers and narks," said Robert. "There's a mole in the organisation, people say, meaning that some smiling colleague is actually a traitor and working for the opposition. How fair is that? What is it about a mole's lifestyle that could be construed as treacherous?"

"I say, Unfair To Moles!" cried Susan.

"I say, All Power to the Mole as Existential Hero!" said Robert.

I say, God save us from damned precocious brats like these, thought Uncle Geoffrey, but he did not say it out loud.

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