As with its subject matter, this book is a joy, a jewel, a treasure and an interesting, and different, addition to our reading material on snowdrops. Few could deny the appeal of snowdrops in the garden, those apparently dainty flowers which defy our harsh winters and bring interest over the six months of October to March. There has been a strong resurgence of interest in these flowers over recent years but over the centuries they have appealed not only to avid gardeners but also to artists, authors and musicians among others and this book delves into this broader appeal. Even the early chapter which describes the various species of galanthus concentrates as much on the social, historic and geographic connections as on the purely botanic. It adds an interesting and very enjoyable richness to the treatment of this marvellous genus of plants.
Of Irish interest is that the first recorded use of the name “snowdrop” was in 1664 by the Irish chemist and physicist, Robert Boyle in a paper entitled, “Experiments and Considerations Touching Colour”. Another early name was “schneetropfen” as the closed snowdrop flower resembled the greatly valued pearl earrings of the time – as seen in Johannes Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring”(1665). The French admired its ability to pierce the snow calling the flower “Perce Niege” while the Spanish referred to them as Spring Bells, “Campanilla de Invierno”. These latter do seem somewhat more accurate and appropriate than John Gerard’s “timely flowring bulbus violet”.
We hear the word “galanthophile” used nowadays almost as a pejorative term and though it was listed in the Oxford English Dictionary in 2012 it was in fact first used by E. A. Bowles (1865- 1954) early in the last century. The caustic pen of Christopher Lloyd wrote that he grew around twenty snowdrop varieties in his garden but that “a genuine nutter might have upwards of 300 and still be far from sated” while Reginald Farrer, famed plant-hunter, commented “the snowdrop gives me chilblains only to look at it.” Yes, indeed, they can be an addictive interest and while this book will certainly appeal to the “nutters” it will also appeal to those of more modest interest as the author threads her way through the wide and various ways in which snowdrops have been loved, used, appreciated and featured over the centuries. It is a wonderfully interesting journey, full of insight, unimagined connections, and delightful treasures.
Gail Harland’s previous books, The Tomato Book (2009), Designing and Creating a Cottage Garden (2011) and The Weeder’s Digest (2012), were each well-researched, readable and enjoyable and she has continued with another excellent volume. You will enjoy Snowdrop whether you are a nutter or not!
[Snowdrop, Gail Harland, Reaktion Books,London, 2016, Harback, 216 pages,£16, ISBN: 978-1-78023-492-2]