14/2/22 Snowdrops and their folklore, paintings, and Lugg Valley gravel

A gift from a stitcher

I was delighted that a stitcher brought along this wonderful combination of large snowdrops and gravel from her garden in the Lugg Valley. I had not appreciated the number of gravel pits, many still actively worked, in the valley.

Jane Tudge described the encaustic painting practice she used in her ‘snowdrop series’.

Jane Tudge with one of the snowdrop artworks she brought along

Whilst the stitchers stitched I read out snippets of snowdrop lore I had found.

Thomasina Beck writes how William Morris, the great socialist craftsman associated with the Arts and Crafts Movement said of stitching snowdrops:

‘Be very shy of double flowers… don’t be swindled out of that wonder of beauty, a single snowdrop; there is no gain and plenty of loss in a double one’.

William Morris, Hopes and Fears for Art, 1882

This we shall experience at first hand I guess!

Detail of ‘Parrot tulip’ screen panel showing background embroidered snowdops, which was one of Morris and Co’s most popular screen panel in the 1880’s (Ref: Thomasina Beck (1992) The Embroiderer’s Flowers)

The snowdrop is native to Europe and the Middle East, brought by the Romans to Britain, and become naturalized. In early history they were known by other names, but in 1753 Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in named the snowdrop Galanthus nivalis ‘milk flower of the snow’.

A Moldovan legend says the pure white flower was a sign of victory of Lady Spring’s victory over the Winter Witch. During their fight Lady Spring cut her finger, the drop of blood melting the snow and a snowdrop grew. A German folktale tells of snow searching for a colour to borrow because the elements admired flowers and their colours. Snow was denied one of the colours by the flowers as they felt snow was too cold and unpleasant. However the snowdrop felt sorry for snow and offered its colour. Snow became white from that point on and showed its thanks by allowing snowdrops to bloom at the end of winter with Snow’s protection against the cold.

The snowdrop has many meanings and symbols associated with it: they can mean purity, innocence, and sympathy. In Victorian England if you sighted a snowdrop it was a sign of death and bad luck and it was also considered bad luck to pick the flowers and bring them inside the home, especially a single snowdrop. It was believed that by picking a snowdrop the quality of cow’s milk was affected in a bad way, and butter discoloured.

Devotees or collectors of different snowdrop varieties are known as Galanthophiles (for their history see Jane Kilpatrick & Jennifer Harmer’s book (2016).

Eco Enchantments has researched and written a fabulous article about The Magic of Snowdrops with references to Hans Christian Anderson, German Illustrator M.Goetz in 1928, Gerarde’s ‘Great Herbal’ published in 1597, John Parkinson’s book ‘Paradisi in Sole, Paradisus Terrestris (A Choice garden of all sorts of rarest flowers) of 1656, a 19th century eccentric catholic essayist Dr Thomas Forster, and many other explorations of snowdrops in art, as myth, legend and folklore, superstition, to festival days such as ‘Brigid’s Day or the Celtic festival of ‘Imbolc’ celebrating the beginning of Spring, to Candlemass also known as ‘The feast of White Purification’ and a Pagan Roman Festival ‘Lupercalia’ and Snowdrop Day in Russia.

Snowdrop in Ruth Lewer’s garden

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.

Thomas Forster, 1824, ‘Perennial calendar and companion to the Almanac’.

To conclude snowdrops are seen as as a symbol of hope and of sadness or mourning, which I feel make them an approrpiate symbol for our exploration of the heritage of the River Lugg, given its and other rivers and waterways precarious environmental situation. We can hope to change this whilst we simultaneously mourn the ecological losses.

Snowdrops growing next to The Lugg at the bridge in Kingsland, a year after the environmental damage to the river and its banks in December 2020.

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