It takes a galanthophile to know the difference between Galanthus alpinus and Galanthus reginae-olegae, between Galanthus koeianus and Galanthus krasnovii. Galanthus, literally ‘milk flower’, is the Greek-derived Latin name for snowdrop, and though I love snowdrops, I am not a galanthophile. I know what a snowdrop looks like, its honeyish smell, how it feels when I bend to press one of its skin-thin petals between my fingers. I know that a snowdrop is not only itself but also what is to come: crocuses, daffodils, spring, summer. But a galanthophile is not made from such woolly knowledge as this. A true galanthophile knows instead, or rather in addition, the names and appearances of the 20 different snowdrop species. A true galanthophile might even have memorized the 500 or so cultivars of the flower recorded in Snowdrops: A Monograph of Cultivated Galanthus (2001). Bound in green cloth and crammed with photographs and diagrams, Snowdrops: A Monograph includes a section on famous snowdrop-growers of the past and is rather sweetly dedicated ‘to all galanthophiles’. As comprehensive as it is eccentric, the work is an essential reference for anyone with more than a passing interest in snowdrops. Among galanthophiles, it is known as ‘the Bible’.
In their introduction, the authors of Snowdrops: A Monograph note that the number of snowdrop-breeders – and with them, the number of snowdrop varieties – has greatly increased in the last fifty years. But the snowdrop has held a special place in the popular and literary imagination for far longer than half a century. It’s easy to see why, for there’s something strange and humbling in the way that this fragile flower is the first to appear after winter, pushing through earth made hard and unyielding from several months’ frost while bigger and brighter blooms wait underground. Of the cluster of Romantic sonnets on the snowdrop, two by Wordsworth stand out, in which he praises the ‘modest grace’ of this ‘venturous harbinger of Spring’ and admires the
Frail snowdrops that together cling
And nod their helmets, smitten by the wing
Of many a furious whirl-blast sweeping by.
Such sentiments would have been familiar to nineteenth-century readers. In floriography, the elaborate Victorian flower-code, snowdrops represent hope, consolation and purity. Other times and cultures have held up the snowdrop as a symbol of determination, renewal, courage, aspiration and faithfulness: impressively weighty virtues for such a delicate flower.
Forty years after Wordsworth’s sonnets, Hans Christian Andersen, already famous for fairytales such as ‘The Little Mermaid’ and ‘The Ugly Duckling’, wrote a story called ‘The Snowdrop’. In this story, the little white flower is too impatient to rest underground until the sun is strong, and with a cry of:
I feel a tingling and a tickling. I must stretch myself; I must extend myself. I must open up; I must come and wave good morning to the summer… !
He bursts through the earth and unfolds himself, head ‘bowed … in happiness and humility’.
Interest in snowdrops is nothing new, but what is new is the way in which it has become big business. The last few years have seen an explosion in snowdrop sales, both online and in specially-held snowdrop auctions. Internet forums buzz with growing tips; lectures by eminent botanists sell out within hours. Once you become aware of this snowdrop-mania, it’s difficult to avoid, especially in early spring when almost every newspaper I open seems to invite me to join a snowdrop walking or cycling tour, in the Cotswolds, in the Highlands, in Ireland, Holland, Belgium.
Despite their enthusiasm, these advertisements are not aimed at galanthophiles, for they typically lump all snowdrops together, making no mention of different species or varieties. Most of the gardens, woodlands and estates open to the public during the snowdrop season feature Galanthus nivalis, the common snowdrop. Nivalis is of little interest to the galanthophile, who seeks the rarest, the newest, the most extraordinary bulbs. The best way to find these is to attend the Galanthus Gala, held every February since 1997, where all manner of snowdrops are displayed and sold. Not that you or I would be likely to notice the difference between rare specimens and the most common: often the only way to distinguish between varieties is by counting the number of tiny green lines on the flower’s inside, the part a casual observer never sees. As Joe Sharman, founder of the Gala, admits, galanthophilia is a ‘seriously obsessive’ business. And while you can buy 50 nivalis bulbs for £10 on the internet, at the Gala it’s not uncommon for rarer bulbs to fetch up to £150 each. On eBay, the prices are even higher. Last spring, a cultivar of Galanthus plicatus pushed its way into national newspapers when a single bulb sold for £357, outstripping the previous record by nearly a hundred pounds. Underestimate the might of Wordsworth’s ‘frail snowdrop’ at your peril.
In a Radio 4 documentary entitled ‘Snowdrop Mania’, attendees at the 2010 Gala described the auction to interviewer Kerry ten Kate as ‘a macho thing, to outbid each other’. The snowdrop seemed lost in the bidding process, as if the bidders might as well have been competing for stamps, toy cars, coronation china or cheese labels. Furthermore, the high sums involved have dragged the snowdrop into a world of crime and secrecy, with cases of theft, of rare specimens seized from gardens in the dead of night. As a result, the world of galanthophilia is changing, becoming less communal, more exclusive. Joe Sharman no longer leaves his gardens without arranging security for his favourite snowdrops, and confesses to having on occasion pulled the heads off flowers in order to prevent them from being recognised; John Grimshaw, one of the authors of Snowdrops: A Monograph of Cultivated Galanthus, is secretive about where and how he keeps his flowers, refusing to tell fellow galanthophiles where he’s based or to let them see his prize bulbs.
I will admit that I find something unpleasant about all this, about the whole circus of galanthophilia. I do not want to look at a snowdrop and think only of its price, its rarity, the financial value of the green lines tucked away inside. Even learning the Latin names seems to make the flowers a little less themselves, a little more something to be bought and sold and catalogued. When I was a child, my mother used to buy an orange fruit, waxy on the outside and with brown leaves like withered petals, a fruit that was more interesting, more delicious, because I did not know its name. There is a kind of magic in not knowing, and especially in not knowing the names of things: I like to think that it makes us know better the things themselves, away from the web of language. At the same time, I am well aware that what I imagine to be my love of ‘the thing itself’ is at least partly a love of my own ignorance, of the rare absence of language. As soon as I discovered the name of the mysterious orange fruit (the persimmon, otherwise Sharon fruit; Latin Diospyros kaki), I lost interest; its taste became sickly, its texture a disconcerting mix of mush and fibre. As a good student of literature, schooled in Saussure, Derrida, Lacan, I ought to know that there’s no such thing as ‘the thing itself’: our world is made through language, or the lack of it, and misty sentiment about the essence of a snowdrop is the shallowest kind of nature-worship.
Still, I can’t help but feel it’s a pity for a flower, and especially one as unassuming-looking as the snowdrop, to be caught in the macho posturing, market forces and secrecy that make up the world of galanthophilia. Unsurprisingly, people have compared the snowdrop’s sudden popularity to tulip mania, the seventeenth-century craze that started in Holland and swept through Europe, with tulip bulbs selling for the modern equivalent of several thousand pounds.
But the tulip is an altogether different flower from the snowdrop. Tulips are stark, unapologetic, sexy; a clenched fist, a pout, a kiss. They are the kind of flower that seems to invite drama, excess, words like ‘fever’, ‘mania’, ‘obsession’. You can hold an armful of tulips, never an armful of snowdrops. The difference between the two flowers is present in their very names: who can say the word tulip without thinking of two lips, without his or her own two lips pouting in a kiss? ‘Snowdrop’ suggests melting, falling, disappearance; linguistically at least, it’s surely cousin to the shrinking violet. Tulips, like snowdrops, have a particular signification in floriography (red, a declaration of love; yellow, hopeless love), but unlike snowdrops, such signification has not permeated popular culture. Perhaps tulips are simply too bold, too visually striking, to be bent into metaphorical meanings or human virtues.
Not so the more malleable snowdrop, which, in its ability to accommodate any number of diverse associations, reveals a capaciousness at odds with its physical size. In spring I am reminded of this capaciousness every day, as I walk along a river whose banks are clumped with snowdrops, pristine in January but by late February starting to look a little ragged. Seeing them, I think of Galanthus nivalis, common snowdrop, sold for next to nothing on the internet, scorned by galanthophiles. I think of Wordsworth, of lessening frost, of fairytales and the new year. I think of the Northern Hemisphere slowly edging its way into sunlight. Further along, there will be crocuses.