‘The snowdrop, in purest white arraie,
First rears her hedde on Candlemas daie.
While the Crocus hastens to the shrine
Of Primrose lone on St Valentine.’
Perennial Calendar and Companion to the Almanac (1824) Dr Thomas Forster
Nothing preludes the end of the cold winter months like the small white nodding heads of the snowdrop. Said to have been introduced to England by Italian monks in the 15th century or as early as the Roman occupation. it has forever more been associated with the celebration of Candlemas or Imbolc and thus called the ‘Fair Maid of February’, ‘Mary’s tapers’ their Latin name Galanthus nivalis translates as ‘Milkflower of the snow’ and in Welsh it is called ‘Eirlys’ the ‘Snow Lilly.’ The Scottish poet George Wilson in his poem ‘The Origin of the snowdrop’:
“And thus the snowdrop, like the bow
That spans the cloudy sky,
Becomes a symbol whence we know
That brighter days are nigh ;
Their blooming at Candlemas meant they were known as ‘Candlemas bells’. One name Eve’s tear derives from a German folktale relating to Adam & Eve’s exile from the garden of Eden. Here they encounter the for the first time and here an Angel tells them that Eden is no longer and tearful they wander off. It is said that the Angel felt sorry for them and so taking snow into the hand and breathing upon it makes the first snowdrops and says
“Take these little flowers as a sign of hope. A sign for your kind and for the earth outside.”
Such begins the flowers tradition of being a harbinger of better days ahead. However, another piece of folklore associates them with doom and gloom. The association of snowdrops with graveyards meant they developed an association with death. It is thought that the Victorians actively planted snowdrops on graves. Vivian A Rich in their 1998), Cursing the Basil: And Other Folklore of the Garden that it:
“was considered the epitome of good taste to edge the grave in blue scillars with snowdrops planted on the grave”
According to Roy Vickery’s 1984 Unlucky plants:
“it has been suggested that the association of snowdrops with death results from the flower’s resemblance to a shroud”
Rich continues to add that the resemblance to a shroud even meant just touching a snowdrop was bad luck; such that people will still never take snowdrops into houses or indeed hospitals. The Victorians believed that death will occur in the family within the year. As xx notes:
“Many cling to and practice this superstition still claiming resolutely that a plucked snowdrop brought upon their threshold was the reason they were widowed.”
Alternatively, Margaret Baker in her 2011 Discovering the Folklore of Plants that people in Herefordshire and Shropshire did bring them in for cleanse the house although did note that if brought in when hen’s were laying would stop them. Similarly, it was also said the snowdrops in the house would spoil eggs and turn milk sour.
Katherine Briggs in her 1974 Folklore of the Cotswolds states that an exception was made for Candlemas itself when snowdrops could be brought inside being blessed by the virgin that day.