Collecting the folklore and uses of plants

Snowdrop – February fair-maids

Although widespread in woodland, hedgebanks, semi-wild areas in gardens and churchyards, the snowdrop is not native plant, having been introduced to the British Isles from southern Europe late in the sixteenth century and not recorded as a wild plant until almost two centuries later.

2014-01-27 14.26.27Snowdrop has acccumulated almost 30 alternative English names. A.S. Macmillan lists death’s flower, dewdrops, drooping bell. Eve’s tear and white bells from Somerset [1]. Geoffrey Grigson gives February fair-maids from Somerset and Wiltshire [2] and a contributor to the Plant-lore Archive records Candlemas bells and Mary’s tapers as names used around Halstead, Essex in the mid 1950s [3].

A number of rather sentimental legends have been associated with snowdrop, but the only authentic folklore which the plant has accumulated is restricted to the belief that it causes misfortune if taken indoors. This is vividly demonstrated in two items contributed to the Folklore Society’s 1982-4 Survey of Unlucky Plants:

I am a District Nursing Sister working in Lancashire, and the following story was related to me by an elderly patient in a farmhouse.
For many years her mother had refused to have snowdrops in the house, even though they grew profusely in the orchard. Girls from east Lancashire towns were often employed to help in the large house and would ask permission to pick the flowers to take home on their day off. This they were allowed to do so long as they left them in water on the doorstep.
After the old lady’s death there was an occasion when a wedding party announced their intention, at short notice, of arriving to pay respects to an ailing relative. Snowdrops were brought in to decorate the tables. it being early in the year and no other flowers available so easily. Within three months the bridegroom was dead, and needless to say, snowdrops have never since been brought into the house.

I must … tell you how I feel about snowdrops. I hate and detest them … My mother started it all by saying never pick them and take them indoors, they are bad luck.
A few years ago my brother-in-law died of a brain tumour at the age of 35. When we were following the coffin to church both sides of the road were white with snowdrops.
Last January my father-in-law went into a private nursing home to die; he suffered until March. We visited him daily, the drive was dotted with snowdrops and outside his window were thousands of the horrid things. As he lay suffering, we could only see them from the windows. It was awful. They are my unlucky flower [4].

1. A.S. Macmillan, 1922, Popular Names of Flowers, etc., Yeovil.
2. G. Grigson, 1987, The Englishman’s Flora, p.415.
3. Stowmarket, Suffolk, August 1989.
4. R. Vickery, 1985, Unlucky Plants, London, pp.31-4.

Images: main, O.W. Thomé, Flora von Deutschland, Österreich und der Schweiz, 1885; inset, Wandsworth Common, London Borough of Wandsworth, January 2014.

Updated 13 February 2015.