Last week snowdrops began blooming in profusion from Columbus to West Point and all around.
Its small pretty white flowers reflect a long and varied mix of history and tradition. It was the flower traditionally planted at the graves of infants and it was a flower symbolizing hope.
Snowdrops were the first flower whose story really fascinated me. My grandmother, Lenore Hardy Billups, dug them up at the old 1780s Hardy home place in Virginia and brought them back to Columbus. It was one of her favorite flowers and growing up I recall our yard filled with them every year in the late winter. As an art student at New Orleans’ Newcomb College in 1909, she decorated a pottery vase as a bed of snowdrops. She called the vase Snowdrops and gave it to me with the story of the snowdrops from Virginia.
I also recall that my grandmother would not allow the snowdrops in the yard to ever be cut and brought inside. That harkened back to the 1700s and 1800s tradition of it being bad luck to do so, as they were the flowers of infants’ graves. In 1821, the Edinburgh Magazine ran an article on the proper decoration of graveyards. It called the snowdrop “the earthly cradles of infancy and childhood.”
However, as snowdrops were the most noticeable flower of late winter, they were also a symbol of hope, as they foretold winter would end and spring would come. An article in the Sept. 7, 1870, New York World described an act of charity during fighting in the then ongoing Franco-Prussian War as, “On the face of the mad chaos, the old symbol has availed to call forth, here and there, the peaceful blooms of charity and devotion, which raise their prophecy of a better age, as snowdrops foretell the spring amid winter colds.”
And so also it may be that the snowdrops outlining an infant’s grave symbolize that just as winter turns to spring the pain of death turns to resurrection with Christ.
Snowdrops and the related later blooming snowflakes are flowers with an amazing heritage. They have been popular flowers in American gardens for more than 250 years. Often thought of as an old Southern garden plant, they were actually popular across the country from New England to the South. The Feb. 4, 1797, New London, Connecticut, Weekly Oracle reported that “Already now the snowdrop dares appear …(and) Had chang’d icicle into a flower.” An article on flowers in a 1795 Charleston, South Carolina, newspaper, The Columbian Herald, reported “Snowdrops expanded February 11.” In the spring of 1823, The Charleston Courier called the snowdrop “the early herald of warmth and of verdure (that is fresh green vegetation).” An 1867 Augusta, Georgia, paper said: “to-morrow the diffuligent (probably effulgent or brightly shinning) snows will give place to Spring; the snow drops will lift their heads.” An article appeared in several 1852 newspapers referring to spring as the time to make nosegays, a small bouquet or bunch of flowers, from “snowdrops, violets and spring beauties.”
The history of snowdrops and the very similar snowflakes go much further back than the 1700s and 1800s. The two plants look much alike with the most noticeable difference being snowdrops tend to begin blooming in February while winter is still with us, but snowflakes tend to bloom in early spring or March. The flowers are so close in appearance that in the 1500s, the noted herbalist John Grard called the snowdrop “the Early Blooming Bulbous Violet” and the snowflake “the Late Blooming Bulbous Violet.”
They were both popular garden flowers in medieval Europe and England. There is a tradition that monks from Rome brought the first snowdrops to England in medieval times. Although the flowers had no known herbal or medicinal value, they were popular in the gardens of monasteries. There are references to the flowers as early as the 1400s, when they were cherished for their beauty and associated with the Virgin Mary. Stories and legends arose surrounding them. One of the more interesting legends concerned Adam and Eve. After God removed them from the Garden of Eden, He created snowdrops. They were His sign to them that each year winter would end, and spring would soon follow.
Writing in the May 14, 1874, Interior, a Chicago paper, Amelia Barr reflected on the flowers heralding spring: “God might have sent an angel when the flood was over, but he sent a leaf; and so, also, when winter has blustered and sobbed away his passion, God sends the spring with Snowdrops in her hands. Therefore, let us go now into the gardens and look for these comforters among flowers… ‘Make thou our spirits pure and clear, as those first snowdrops of the year.'”
Rufus Ward is a Columbus native a local historian. E-mail your questions about local history to Rufus at [email protected]