Late one February about 40 years ago, I landed in London from snow-crusted, winter-dismal Maine.

February is not the cruelest month here, but it might be the bleakest. It’s frigid at night. In normal times there’s a foot or more of snow anchored to the ground.

The only sign of life is the sun inching higher day by day. But even that is scant consolation, because the light is cold and stark. It filters through the bay window and slowly strangles the geranium, to steal a Wilton poet’s image.

London’s light was familiar at first, with that grimy, dusty, shell-shocked feel March can have here. There was no snow, because it is actually much warmer there in winter than here. How warm?

As I walked along the sidewalk from the train station to my friend’s flat in Wimbledon Park, what to my wondering Maine eyes should appear, but crocuses in full bloom by every stoop. It was astonishing. Flowers in February.

Who ever heard of such a thing in the dead of winter?


Well, unbeknownst to me there was such a thing back home. You can see them even in February if you know where to look in wet woods.

Snowdrops. They get their name, so the internet botanists say, from their white, droplet-like petals, and also because they often poke their little blossoms up through the blanket of snow.

Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) are shown in Bucksport in February. Photo courtesy of Patricia Ranzoni

Even here. My friend Patricia Ranzoni, poet laureate of Bucksport, sent me a photo last week of her cultivated snowdrops peeking up out of the February snow.

It was astonishing. At my house in the Troy woods, there is a foot or so of crusty snow on the ground and no thought of flowers whatsoever, beyond the geranium struggling in the window.

Snowdrops (Galanthus spp.), it turns out, are native to the cooler parts of the Near East, and came to Western Europe and eventually North America as bulbs planted for spring cheer. They’ve fascinated British gardeners for a couple hundred years apparently, and are called there variously “fair maids of February” and “Candlemas bells,” as they start blossoming around the beginning of February, when Candlemas marks the last day of the Epiphany season.

The spiritual dimension of all this was not lost on the 19th century British poets. An element of hope is folded into the vision of a flower, especially one that grows up suddenly through snow. Snow, nature’s living metaphor of bleak, blanketing winter emptiness. Flowers, nature’s living images of renewal.


For an old guy weathering a particularly bleak experience of emptiness this winter, these are heartening thoughts, and Pat’s photo of snowdrops popping up in February felt for all the world like a remedy.

This feeling proved to be arriving from places poets had traveled before.

Snowdrops, I discovered, have been used for centuries as a folk treatment for headaches and nerve pain. Some scholars think the “moly” drug Odysseus used as antidote to Circe’s poison was snowdrops. It appears they were often cultivated in Europe around monasteries.

In the middle of the 20th century it was found that Galanthus flowers contain a compound called galantamine. Which is neither here nor there in and of itself, but galantamine is a key component in drugs made to improve symptoms of cognitive disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease. Extracts made from Galanthus bulbs contain a chemical important to neurological processes and can be used to improve cognitive function, including memory.

What was I saying?

Snowdrops, blossoming out of February snow. It is astonishing but there it is, the signs are everywhere. Inside the very fabric of winter itself, life recurs.

Dana Wilde lives in Troy. You can contact him at His book “Summer to Fall: Notes and Numina from the Maine Woods” is available from North Country Press. Backyard Naturalist appears the second and fourth Thursdays each month.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or login first for digital access. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.

filed under: