Thursday, February 08, 2007

The Sign of Spring: Snowdrops

Deep sleeps the winter,
Cold, wet, and grey;
Surely all the world is dead;
Spring is far away.
Wait! The world shall waken;
It is not dead, for lo,
The fair maids of February
Stand in the snow!

In my neighborhood, the snowdrops are finally blooming (they're actually a bit late this year). I found a patch outside the Daphne Apartments, down the block from my house. On Saturday, February 3, they were still closed up tight. I took this picture of them.

Two days later, when I picked one on my way to work so I could draw it, they were opening. And the snowdrop I carried in my pocket to a cafe at lunch, was wide open when I drew it. If you have never looked closely at a snowdrop, you should. The inside petals have beautiful green stripes.

The Latin name for the snow drop is Galanthus, which means "milk flower" in Greek. I like the milky connotation for the flower of Candlemas. The species name, Nivalis, is also Greek and means "near the snow line." The snow drop, is also known as perce-neige (French for "piercing the snow"), Candlemas Bells and Mary's Tapers, the latter due to its arrival around Candlemas.

According to Laura Martin, some British churches remove the statue of Mary in early spring and scatter snowdrop blossoms in its place, a pretty conceit that might make a pagan scholar suspect that Mary is here standing in for Kore who emerges from the Underworld as the blossoms of spring.

The association of the snowdrop with Candlemas is quite old. A poem from An Early Calendar of English Flowers begins:

The Snowdrop, in purest white array,
First rears her head on Candlemas day.

In the language of the flowers, the snowdrop represents hope.

In some English counties, it is considered bad luck to bring snow drop blossoms into the house when they first begin to bloom (the same taboo applies to primroses and violets) as the snow drop was seen as a death token.

Martin, Laura, Garden Flower Folklore, Globe Pequot Press 1987

Friday, February 02, 2007

The Scent of Spring: Sweet Box

I’ve been looking forward to reviving my Blog and musing about what I would feature as the first flower of spring. I always think of Snowdrops as the flower of Candlemas (Feb 2) but I have not yet seen one this year. The plant which has been bringing me the most joy is the lovely sweet box, also known as Sarcococca hookerana, var. humilis, and sometimes as Sarcococca humilis.

This is the plant that always bring me my first whiff of spring. It happened again this year, as it does every year. I’m walking along and suddenly I'm stopped in my tracks by an incredible fragrance, but I can't find the source.

This happened for several days in a row last week, every time I went out the front door of my workplace, Richard HugoHouse, in Seattle. Finally the third time, I stopped and searched for the source of the scent. Even though I knew about sweet box, I didn’t spot it at first. It’s so unassuming. Just a low-lying shrub with glossy green oval leaves, slightly curled around the edges. The flowers are small and white and grow on the undersides of the stems, as if they were hiding. But the scene is divine, both piercing and elusive.

This link has a great picture of it and a good description of how it grows:

But as usual my favorite gardener Paghat has the best pictures of both Sarcococca humilis, which she says is also called Christmas box and Himalayan box., and a taller version, Sarcococca ruscifolia:

In fact, looking at her pictures, I suspect the plant at work is S. ruscifolia and not humils. She’s also the only person who provided a translation of the genus name: from Sarco (fruit) and Cocca (berry). It does have lovely berries in the fall which turn red, then shiny dark black.

Most writers describe the scent as vanilla. My boss thought it smelled like lavender. I think it’s closer to jasmine. Intense and sweet. It’s more interesting when you drift through it unexpectedly than if you pick a sprig and sniff it. There’s some kind of important lesson for life there.

As recommended by all the gardening sites I visited, the sweet box outside my work is planted near the entrance, against a wall which shelters it from the southern winds and the southern sun. It's also underneath a larger tree which provides shade.

Apparently sarcococca only grows in Zones 6 through 8, so I’m lucky. I can never remember what Zone I live in but apparently I live in the right Zone. It seems like the perfect flower to announce spring, a small, unassuming plant that hints at the pleasures to come.

The wonderful photograph of sweet box above comes from this web site
which also features photographs of many other early flowering plants. As far as I can tell (my German is not good), these photographs are of plants blooming in March in a botanical garden in Braunschweig.

May you enjoy the first fragrance of spring where you live.