Michael McCarthy: The first green shoots of optimism

Nature Notebook

Green shoots are as yet no more visible in the natural world than they are in the world of economics, with one major exception: snowdrops. The flowers that the French call snow-piercers ( perce-neiges) have pushed their green leaves out of the ground now and are beginning to open their blooms, and this weekend marks the start of the snowdrop season.

A cluster of major gardens across Britain will be open for visitors to gaze on the stunning white carpets that these diminutive members of the lily family are starting to form on the bare brown earth. It's such a fantastic sight that I've always thought it worth a special journey, and if you want to find your nearest snowdrop display you can find a list on the Great British Gardens website ( www.greatbritishgardens.co.uk/snowdrops.htm), which includes gardens in Scotland and Wales as well as in England.

Some of the best displays tend to be at sites which once housed religious foundations, before Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries, such as Anglesey Abbey in Cambridgeshire or Walsingham in Norfolk, for the snowdrop once had strong religious associations, especially with the Virgin Mary. It was particularly associated with Candlemas, the feast of the Virgin's purification according to Jewish law, 40 days after the birth of Christ. Candlemas falls this coming Monday, and one of the old names for snowdrops was "Candlemas bells". It is not hard to understand how the flowers were seen as flawless symbols of purity and planted in large numbers in churchyards.

Botanists disagree on whether the snowdrop is a native British plant or an ornamental flower which was brought in and has now become naturalised.It scarcely matters. It provides a breathtaking spectacle when the rest of the plant world is still sound asleep, and if you're looking for your first country outing of the year this weekend you could do a lot worse than visit somewhere like Welford Park, near Newbury, where snowdrops carpet the beechwoods along the Lambourn river. If this was a restaurant review I'd be hungry just thinking about it.

A beautiful sign of hope

There are other wild flowers which can form wonderful springtime white carpets, especially on woodland floors; wood anemones, and ransoms (wild garlic) spring to mind. They can provide quite incredible sights. Somehow, though, the snowdrops are still the best, even if they're not natives. Perhaps it's because they're the prettiest and most lily-like; but more likely it's because they're the first, and they're the sign, in the dead of winter, of the great rebirth to come. They're not only full of beauty; they're full of hope.