#82 Snowdrops




Photo courtesy of Louise Aucott


Snowdrops belong to the genus Galanthus in the amaryllis family, also the home of daffodils; the twenty species of bulbs are mostly winter-blooming, with a few outliers flowering in autumn.  Appearing in January, most varieties have two, narrow blue-green leaves resembling grass; when they bloom a few weeks later, the flowers hang like pendants, one from each stem, with six petals, three larger, drop-shaped, exterior petals surrounding a cup of three smaller inner ones streaked or tipped with a vivid emerald green.




            The common snowdrop, G nivalis is small, usually only 6-8 inches in height. G plicatus, brought back from the Crimean war, is larger, reaching ten inches. The largest flowers are bourne by G. elwesii, the giant snowdrop, originally from Turkey (Hogan 623; Ward 331). Snowdrops are not to be confused with Snowflakes, or Leucojum, most of which bloom in May-June, are taller (almost twenty inches,) and have several bell-shaped flowers, made up of  six radially symmetrical petals with green dots on each point, hanging off each stem (see Pratt 86-7; also https://www.longfield-gardens.com/article/all-about-leucojum/).


The name Galanthus, provided by Linneaus, is a combination of the Greek words for milk (gala) and flower (anthos); several sources suggest that the common name “snowdrop” is a reference to the way the outer petals resemble the drop-shaped pearl earrings popular in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, made famous by Dutch painters such as Vermeer (Ward 322; Folkard 278; Harland10). The flower itself is native to Europe and the Middle East and was not imported into England until after the time of Shakespeare, who never mentioned it (Randall 345). Gail Harland’s helpful recent history of the Snowdrop, pins the date of introduction more specifically, noting that Gerard’s Herball of 1597 identifies as a “bulbous violet” a plant referred to as a “snowdrop in the 1633 edition.” In her little book on Flowers and Their Associations, published in 1846, Anne Pratt notes that Restoration diarist John Evelyn mentioned the snowdrop “as a rare flower”; she asserts that it is “certainly not an old English plant, though now is pretty extensively naturalized” (86). This arrival date is supported by Randall’s evidence that the flower is first named in the OED in 1664 (345).


As Harland notes, the “immaculate white flowers” of snowdrops made them an attractive religious symbol of purity (59). Almost every reference source on the flower mentions its liturgical associations with February 2, Candelmas in the church calendar, forty days after the birth of Jesus when Mary went to the Temple for her ritual purification (Ward 332; Randall 345; Pratt 86; Folkard 277; Harland 59-61). Traditionally the day when all the Christmas greenery was removed from the church (Ward 332) and the candles for the year were blessed (Harland 61), February 2 was also thought to be the day when hibernating animals woke up (Ward 333), and was thus also a day of weather divination (Harland 63), surviving in North America today as Groundhog’s Day. The early appearance of the flowers, often the first bulbs to bloom in the winter garden, made the snowdrop a common symbol “of renewal and the return of better times” (Ward 335.). Harland also points out that snowdrops were associated with St. Agnes, “patron saint of chastity, young girls, and gardeners” (65).  And although Greenaway lists the meaning of snowdrops in the language of flowers as “Hope” (39), they were also adopted as “an emblem of virginity”; according to Harland they were carried by young girls in order to “warn away unwanted suitors” (80).


Curiously, snowdrops were also linked to death, partially because they were so often planted around graves (Harland 67; Watts 355).  Queen Victoria, who carried snowdrops in her wedding bouquet, was surrounded on her deathbed by not only lilies but also snowdrops (Harland 69).  In their accounts of flower folklore, both Folkard and Watts offer another explanation of this elegiac association: the fact that the unopened flower “looks like a corpse in its shroud” (Folkard 378; Watts 355).


Although snowdrops do not show up in British literature until after the Restoration -- all sources agree that their first appearance was in Thomas Tickell’s 1772 fairy fantasy “Kensington Gardens” (Randall 346; Ward 336; Folkard 277)[1] -- they seem to propagate as rapidly as their botanical originals. The Lake Poets were fond of snowdrops. Coleridge wrote a poem sometime around 1800 about the “timid Flower,” which emphasized its drooping posture.[2] According to Randall’s survey of Wild Flowers in [British] Literature, in a poem of 1803, Wordsworth praised a circle of snowdrops planted around a rock in his orchard at Grasmere (346), and he wrote two other poems about the plant around 1820, both sonnets. “On Seeing a Tuft of Snowdrops in a Storm” emphasizes the frailty but stalwart faithfulness of the flowers:

these frail snow-drops that together cling,
And nod their helmets smitten by the wing
Of many a furious whirlblast sweeping by.[3]


“To a Snowdrop” similarly praises a mixture of attributes. While the flower appears humble -- “once more I see thee bend/ Thy forehead, as if fearful to offend” -- and the poet praises its “modest grace,” he also celebrates its bravery and consistency as a seasonal marker: “Chaste Snowdrop, venturous harbinger of Spring, /And pensive monitor of fleeting years.”[4]


There is also quite a cluster of references to snowdrops in Tennyson, ranging throughout his career. In “The May Queen” (1833), a young girl recalls her joy the year before when she was crowned Queen of the May as she lies waiting for death; combining the snowdrop’s role as a harbinger of spring with its aura of mourning, she proclaims, “I only wish to live till the snowdrops come again.”[5] Recalling the association of snow drops with the chastity of St. Agnes, in “St Agnes Eve” (1837), a far less sensuous poem than that of his predecessor Keats, a nun prays:            

                Make Thou my spirit pure and clear

As are the frosty skies,

Or this first snowdrop of the year

That in my bosom lies.[6] (noted by Harland 58).

In Part V of The Princess, the snowdrop is also a figure of purity as the speaker describes his mother as being “pure as lines of green that streak the white/Of the first snowdrop's inner leaves.”  In Book Ten of the Idylls of the King, “The Last Tournament,” the purity of the snowdrop is mocked by a “swarthy one” glad to be rid of innocence: “The snowdrop only, flowering thro' the year,/Would make the world as blank as Winter-tide.” This disdain of innocence is a mark of the decadence into which the Court has fallen.


Great admirers of Tennyson, whose poetry they often illustrated in their paintings, the Pre-Raphaelites continued to present snow drops as emblems of purity, tinged with death.[7] There is a snowdrop in the stained glass window of “Mariana,” John Everett Millais’ 1851 tribute to Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure and in his 1854 drawing of Tennyson’s “St Agnes’s Eve.” Harland interprets the snowdrop in Mariana as both an indication of “virginal chastity” and a suggestion that “Mariana is contemplating consolation in death” (100).



Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s 1873 painting Blanzifiore, aka “Snowdrops,” is a cut-down version of one of his Proserpine series that uses the snowdrop’s association with death to forshadow her kidnapping by Hades.[8] His sister, Christina Rossetti, was fond of snowdrops, and according to Harland, regularly took them to the grave of her sister Maria (68). In her poem, “Another Spring” (1862) she wishes that she may once again see her “chill-veined snow-drops” (cited by Harland (69).[9] Snowdrops are evoked in a more hopeful light in her “The Months: A Pageant” (1881) when February arrives to greet January:

I've brought some snowdrops; only just a few,
But quite enough to prove the world awake,
Cheerful and hopeful in the frosty dew.” [10]


A number of other women writers pay tribute to the snowdrop as a welcome sign of spring in their fiction. Charlotte Bronte mentions them both in Jane Eyre (1847) and Shirley (1849)[11] And in Adam Bede by George Eliot, the titular hero’s mother Lisbeth is described as being “clean as a snowdrop”: later she looks into a young girl’s face as if “into a newly gathered snowdrop, to renew the old impressions of purity and gentleness” (https://www.writingredux.com/m324-clean-as-a-snowdrop/ and Harland 85).


Despite this plethora of literary antecedents, Woolf’s sixteen references to snowdrops are almost entirely based on personal observation. Two early mentions, in essays of 1906, do show a certain knowledge of and slight resistance to the literary clichés associated with the early blooming flower. In her review, “Poetic Drama,” about seven fairly recent attempts at plays in verse, she lists “The Snowdrop” among a list of themes, including “Spring and Age” and “Equality,” reflected on by Mr. Paul Hookham, whose mind, while “individual,” perhaps is not so “interesting that we wish to have an exact copy of it” (E1 100, 99). A second review of two new books about Wordsworth’s haunts in the Lake District, published only two months later, compares the “terse veracity” of Wordsworth’s prose with the over-elaborated efforts of Canon Rawnsley for whom a snowdrop is “‘a fair maiden of February’, who conceals a secret ‘that … deep below in the ground is marvelous activity. By every rootlet’s tiniest mouth, in the great laboratory of growth in which the Spring is chief chemist,’ and so on, and so on”(E1 108). The only other faintly literary reference to snowdrops occurs in a 1923 essay “The Chinese Shoe” about a biography of Lady Henry Somerset, whose life was so constrained that Woolf compares it to footbinding, At her marriage in St. George’s Hanover Square, Lady Somerset “carried a basket of snowdrops picked in his own garden by Lord Tennyson himself” (E3 391); here the snowdrops seem to function as  an artifact from a past whose insistence on female purity was a kind of imprisonment.


There is none of this tone of exasperation, however, In Woolf’s own observations of the flower itself, which throughout her life appears as one of the key harbingers of spring, often the first entry in her floral calendar. As early as February of 1897, when she is fifteen, she notes in a competitive comparison of local flowers that their neighbor “possesses a snow drop,” while her window box boasts a squill, and her sister Vanessa’s has no blooms at all (PA 39).[12] Snowdrops and the shoots of what may be squills or crocuses are among the flowers Woolf notices at Kew the day after her birthday in 1918 (D1 114). In early March of 1920, writing in her diary about the exuberant arrival of their first “SPRING” at Monk’s House, she notes, “Daffodils all out; garden set with thick golden crocuses; snowdrops almost over; pear trees budding; birds in song” (D1 21).


During the late 1920’s snowdrops seem to be linked particularly with Vita Sackville-West. In February of 1927, Woolf writes her lover about the mixed conditions at Monk’s House: “We are down here for the weekend, in a flood of wet and wind. The snowdrops are out and the w.c. has broken and Leonard and Percy Bartholomew are stamping about the garden in waterproofs and I’m sitting in the Lodge feeling rather cold” (L3 337). Two years later, in February of 1929, Woolf writes Vita, anticipating her arrival home from Berlin: “But this time fortnight you’ll be poking for the snowdrops at Long Barn (L4 26). And in January of 1923, in a letter “intended to make [Vita] jealous,” Woolf reports that “I swear this is only Jan: the 7th: and L. picked me a snowdrop this morning”(L5 147). Vita was a great lover of small spring bulbs that naturalize easily. A page in the February chapter of her Garden Book (assembled from various garden writings by her daughter in-in-law Philippa Nicolson) is devoted to snowdrop varieties and culture (36-7), and in his account of Gardening at Sissinghurst, Tony Lord remarks how Vita began planting various bulbs in the Orchard of Sissingurst soon after they purchased the castle and its grounds in 1930 --snowdrops along with fritillaries, crocuses, and daffodils (136). Perhaps it is these associations which caused the snowdrop to be included in the anachronistic list of flowers planted at her ancestral home by Orlando: “snowdrops, crocuses, hyacinths, magnolias, roses, lilies, asters, the dahlia in all its varieties” (81) -- although the chronological order at which these flowers appear during the year is fairly accurate, neither snowdrops nor dahlias were widely available at this point in the history of British gardens.


A couple of times during the twenties, Woolf also includes observations of the exact color of snowdrops into conversations with a wider social context.  In November of 1924, she writes to Molly McCarthy, assuring her about what sounds like a fairly adventurous fashion choice: “I don’t in the least agree about your dress: I thought it a mixture of snowdrop and viper: a green viper. Scintillating as the snow, and very effective and chaste” (L3 143). Feeling depressed after Lord Sackville’s death and sympathetic to Vita’s sadness over the loss of Knole, while she was “hacking away rather listlessly at the last chapter of Orlando” in February of 1928, Woolf writes in her diary of the revival of the Bloomsbury social scene with the arrival of Clive in London: “& so we return to some flicker of the snowdrop pallor of very early spring” (D3 175).  Although one is dramatic and the other definitely low-key, both of these references evoke a sense of the flower’s whiteness as a sign of either purity or sickness.


Snowdrops generally disappear in Woolf’s writing in the 1930’s, only to poke their heads out in 1940 and 1941 as part of what seems to be an effort on Woolf’s part to cheer herself up or restore some sense of normalcy during the onslaughts of the Blitz by recording the cyclical round of vegetation in the garden as she did in other times of stress such as after her mother’s death in 1897, during her convalesce at Asham in 1917, and at Hogarth House in early 1918.  But now, the little white flowers seem to mark the futility of efforts at renewal. In February of 1940, after noting in her diary that her recently published Three Guineas was “a dead failure in USA,” she records an outing with Leonard on “a dim wet ordinary spring winter day” where she notices “Snowdrops on the graves” (D5 269, 270), a rather depressed return to conventional associations of the snowdrop with death. A little more than two weeks later, recovering from a series of sporadic days in bed, she marks her “calm convalescence” by noting the signs of spring she had missed: “Crocuses out & snowdrops. L. making rock garden. All sounds of human life stilled” (D5 271). Worrying over how and if the Hogarth Press will be able to publish her biography of Roger Fry, her mind wanders, only to return to the garden: “birds chirping. P[ercy]. spraying apple trees; blue crocuses with snowdrops" (D5 271). A reference to the flowers in a diary entry of  January 1941, only a day after her birthday, is even more bleak: “There’s a lull in the war. Six nights without raids. But Garvin says the greatest struggle is about to come—say in three weeks—and every man, woman, dog, cat, even weevil must girt their arms, their faith—and so on. It’s the cold hour, this: before the lights go up. A few snowdrops in the garden. Yes, I was thinking: we live without a future. That’s what’s queer: with our noses pressed to a closed door" (D5 355).  Here the snowdrop’s association with spring and hope is completely vitiated, replaced with the empty and endless cold of winter.


  Woolf’s last reference to snowdrops appears in her posthumously published novel, Between the Acts, written about a village pageant where it is not clear whether the lights will go up or forever be darkened.  Although the book is clearly set during “a summer’s night,” when looking out her bedroom window at her child, George, Mrs. Giles Oliver, sees a “green island, hedged about with snowdrops, laid with/ a counterpane of puckered silk” which she refers to as “an innocent island” (BTA 10-11). Since we know from a dozen or so of her own written observations that Woolf was perfectly aware that snowdrops bloom in early spring rather than the middle of summer, the reference seems oddly out of season. Perusal of the holograph manuscripts provides a hint of an explanation.  In the Early Typescript a “hedge of snowdrops” appears as a simile describing the protective quality with which the metaphorical green island of childhood is surrounded, made into a “sheltered fortress,” guarding her child from “all contact with the storms and treacheries of adult life” (PH 47). So, one last time, the snowdrop assumes its mantle of purity, this time with a hint of Wordsworth’s stalwart helmet, if not its role as a “pensive monitor of fleeting years.”[13]



[1]  An excerpt from this poem appears in Whitten’s collection London in Song, which Virginia Stephen received at the age of eighteen as a birthday gift from her Aunt Caroline (Sparks, “London Library” 66). However, in the less-than-twenty lines selected by Whitten, there is no mention of the snowdrop, which according to Randall’s summary of the full narrative is  “a flower made through magic contraction out of a dead lover by Kennas, the fairy princess of Kensington” (Randall 346; Whitten 51-2).


[2] Text available on-line: https://www.poetrynook.com/poem/snow-drop-6   Accessed February 9, 2022.


[3]  For full poem see: https://poets.org/poem/seeing-tuft-snowdrops-storm Accessed February 9, 2022.


[4] For full poem see: https://internetpoem.com/william-wordsworth/to-a-snowdrop-poem/ Accessed February 9, 2022.


[5] For full Poem see: https://www.poemhunter.com/poem/the-may-queen-2/  Accessed February 9, 2022.  The line about snowdrops appears in the fifteenth stanza.


[6] For full poem see: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/45388/st-agnes-eve

Accessed February 9, 2022.


[7] Snowdrops appear so frequently that an entire entry of the blog The Pre-Raphaelite Pleasaunce,” is devoted to them.  See https://thepreraphaelitepleasaunce.com/in-the-pleasaunce-with-snowdrops/ Accessed February 10, 2022.


[8] See http://www.rossettiarchive.org/docs/s227.rap.html Accessed February 10, 2022.


[9] Text available at: https://www.poetry.com/poem/5739/another-spring Accessed February 10, 2022.


[10] For the complete poem see https://hellopoetry.com/poem/16185/the-months-a-pageant/ Accessed February 10, 2022.


[11]  In Jane Eyre, they appear at Lowood among other spring blossoms: “snowdrops, crocuses, purple auriculas, and golden-eyed pansies.” Randall quotes a passage from Chapter Five of Shirley describing how “in sheltered nooks, the first shoots of snowdrop or crocus peep, green as emerald” (Randall 349).


[12] “Squills” (Scilla siberica) are small blue-flowered bulbs that bloom in early spring at a similar time as snowdrops, though they last a bit longer.  Woolf mentions seeing them twice in A Passionate Apprentice (39, 55) and twice at Kew in 1918 (D1 114, 127).  In entries during January or February, squills are mentioned along with snowdrops. But March seems to be the month at which they appear “at their best” (PA 55), often accompanied by crocuses. She returns to squills in March of 1940 (D5 273), during a spate of references to all sorts of spring flowers. Since I can find no mention of them in her fiction or essays, I have not made an entry for them in this herbarium.


[13] By the Later Typescript, the snowdrop has become an easily literalized metaphor for the “incidents of garden life . . . . Isolated on a green island, hedged about with snowdrops and laid with a counterpane of puckered silk” or “embroidered quilts” (PH 259).  Interestingly enough, Leaska’s annotations for this scene in the Earlier Typescript, while not mentioning snowdrops per se, makes reference to Vita Sackville-West, suggesting that the many references to fish “throughout all versions of the novel” are associated with Woolf’s powerful memory of Vita standing in a fishmonger’s shop in Sevenoaks (PH 197). He even goes so far as to connect the Barn at Pointz Hall to Long Barn at Seven Oaks, the very location where Woolf once imagined Vita “poking” for snowdrops (PH 198; L2 26).

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About 98 Flowers

Welcome to the Virginia Woolf Herbarium.  For many years I have been researching and writing about Virginia Woolf and parks, gardens, and fl...