I did not expect to survive,
earth suppressing meSnowdrops: Louise Gluck
They sparkle. Even on dull days they light up the ground beneath our trees and this year they are putting on a particularly heroic display, defiantly poking through hard ground compacted by our long winter of construction work. They survive! Do not be deceived by their dainty, demure flowers, dear garden visitor: snowdrops are a truly tough bunch.
A sudden cold snap has prolonged their flowering so it’s just a shame we can’t invite anyone to see them. This is the second year The Pond Garden has appeared in Scotland’s Gardens Scheme guidebook (see page 236) and we had hoped to welcome visitors to seasonal highlights, starting with snowdrops. Not that our displays are a match for the wonderful collections in the SGS list of places open for Snowdrop Sundays. Woodland walks through gardens like Cambo near St Andrews put us to shame. Perhaps this spring we will follow their example by diligently splitting and spreading clumps of bulbs ‘in the green’. But despite our hitherto half-hearted efforts, the plants seem to do a pretty good job of spreading themselves. How? Perhaps bees give a helping hand on warmer days.
The Pond Garden will open as soon as possible. This year we are fundraising for Children’s Hospices Across Scotland, in particular association with Rachel House, Kinross
Our first signs of spring are not flowers. They are the little green spears poking through the debris of last year. This winter I’ve been watching them with mixed feelings. They have a clear run in the woodland areas but around the house they have had to compete with diggers, cement mixers, tons of hardcore and trampling feet. Wrapping the walls with external insulation is a good plan for the people who live there but it’s a formidable project that has fairly well trashed the ground around the house.
A personal significance
In previous years we would open the back door to see red squirrels rummaging among snowdrops and hellebores – it’s marvellous what magical scenes feeders full of peanuts and sunflower seeds conjure up. And I know, I know, those scenes will return. In fact, birds and squirrels seem quite happy to share the site with the builders (who share their lunch with them). But I feared for the plants.
For me, there’s a personal significance in spring bulbs struggling through hard ground. Snowdrop Sunday so often fell on my father’s birthday (13 February) and in his last few years after Mum died we had special reason to feel grateful to the Galanthus family and their close relatives. “Traditionally,” as the Woodland Trust notes, “snowdrops were used to treat headaches and as a painkiller. In modern medicine a compound in the bulb has been used to develop a dementia treatment.”
Dementia brought a cruel reduction of Dad’s social world: small talk shrivels when short-term memory shrinks. But he had always loved exploring the great outdoors and in his memory tests he would reel out long lists of birds. On woodland walks he could identify them by their song. On garden visits in spring he loved to see early flowers emerging.
Poisonous but healing beauties
So, we were intrigued when his sympathetic and enterprising GP suggested a (then) new drug being tried to treat mild to moderate cases of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia: Galantamine. We were never sure how much difference it made to Dad’s vascular dementia, but on spring walks it amused him to be reminded that his daily medicine included a compound extracted from otherwise poisonous beauties. It’s quite a cocktail, according to Wikipedia: Galanthus nivalis (Common snowdrop), Galanthus caucasicus (Caucasian snowdrop) Galanthus woronowii (Voronov’s snowdrop) and some other members of the Amaryllidaceae family such as Narcissus (daffodil) and Leucojum aestivum (snowflake).
It’s interesting, isn’t it? So many of the early flowers are poisonous to animals (Homo sapiens included). Which explains why the voracious Pond Cottage rabbits shun Galanthus and Narcissus leaving us humans at least the pleasure of looking at them. (We do know not to eat them)
They look so much at home. But the common snowdrop is not native to the UK. It might have been introduced to gardens from mainland Europe in the 16th century, says the Woodland Trust, and took its time to naturalise (it wasn’t recorded wild in woodlands until the 18th century) but now it romps across the damper parts of Britain. And, added to perhaps 20 known species, there is a bewildering range of cultivated forms to tease the eye and tempt the pockets of plant collecting gardeners. According to Cambridge Botanic Gardens, “over 2,500 different varieties, cultivars and hybrids!”
“Snowdrops writhing under feet”
Emerging from cold, dark earth, the first sign of spring is also often associated with death and perhaps explains a chilly ambivalence in many poets. I went looking for poems about snowdrops and found Wordsworth pondering an “unbidden guest… a pensive monitor of fleeting years”, DH Lawrence Craving for Spring but angrily trampling on snowdrops, “ghastly first flowers”. TS Eliot treading between life and death, “wrestling with words and meaning” while seeming to fear the “disturbance of spring…and snowdrops writhing under feet.”
But it’s a contemporary poet, former US laureate Louise Gluck, who produces words which seem made for the survivors by our new front door. Not expecting to survive. Against the odds appearing in the raw wind of another cold spring Gluck’s Snowdrops are “crying yes risk joy”
And here they are. Almost incredibly, undaunted by digging and draining and ditching and dumping, the first sharp green shoots have poked through the rubble and hardcore. Who knows how many more are lurking underground, but it’s great to see that Harry, the digger driver, has raked carefully next to the path revealing more than we expected. That’s hope for you. Hope in a hard hat.
Pictures: snowdrops at Pond Cottage by Fay Young
Almost a year ago..