Wildlife in Cemeteries No 8 – the dark side of the Snowdrop

As we are still in lockdown, I thought that I would repost an earlier blog about a flower that is traditionally associated with cemeteries and churchyards. This is the time of year when they start to  make a welcome appearance as signs of Spring and this year, especially, I think that we need to know that better days are coming.

Snowdrops in St George’s churchyard, Beckenham.
©Carole Tyrrell

Imagine yourself in a gloomy medieval church on the festival of Candlemass. You, and your fellow parishioners, have each brought your candles to be blessed by the priest and, after the procession which will fill the church with light, they will all be placed in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary.   Candlemass marked the end of winter and the beginning of Spring and the blessing is to ward off evil spirits.  It traditionally falls on February 2 and is shared with the Celtic festival of Imbolc.  And in the churchyard outside you can see green shoots forcing their way up through the hard winter earth.  The snowdrop’s milk-white flowers show that spring is on its way as they begin to emerge into the light.

The placing of the lit candles in front of the Virgin Mary’s statue gave the snowdrop one of its many other names – Mary’s Tapers.  But there are many others such: Dingle Dangle, Candlemas Bells, Fair Maids of February, Snow Piercer, Death’s Flower and Corpse Flower.

Snowdrops, Brompton Cemetery, January 2018
©Carole Tyrrell

 

The snowdrop’s appearance has also inspired many comments . According to the Scottish Wildlife Trusts website they have been described as resembling 3 drops of milk hanging from a stem and they are also associated with the ear drop which is an old fashioned ear ring.  Anyone who has seen a group of snowdrops nodding in the wind will understand what they mean.   The snowdrop’s colour is associated with purity and they have been described as a shy flower with their drooping flowers.  However, the eco enchantments website reveals that the flower is designed in this way due:

‘to the necessity of their dusty pollen being kept dry and sweet in order to attract the few insects flying in winter.’

Snowdrops have been known since ancient times and, in 1597, appeared in Geralde’s ‘Great Herbal where they were called by the less than catchy name of ‘Timely Flowers Bulbous Violets’.  Its Latin name is Galanthus nivalis.  Galanthus means milk white flowers and the nivalis element translates as snowy according to the great botanist, Linnaeus in 1753.   In the language of flowers they’re associated with ‘Hope’ and the coming of spring and life reawakening.

However, yet despite all these positive associations, the elegant snowdrop has a much darker side. Monks were reputed to have brought them to the UK but it was the ever enthusiastic Victorians who copiously planted them in graveyards, churchyards and cemeteries which then linked them with death.  Hence the nickname name ‘Death’s Flower.’

They were described by Margaret Baker in the 1903 ‘Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Folklore and the Occult of the World’ as:

‘so much like a corpse in a shroud that in some counties  the people will not have it in the house, lest they bring in death.‘

Snowdrops, St George’s Beckenham.
©Carole Tyrrell

So that’s where the ‘Corpse Flower’ nickname came from.

Snowdrops are also seen as Death’s Tokens and there are several regional folk traditions of connecting death with them. For example in the 19th and early 20th centuries it was considered very unlucky to bring the flower into the house from outside as it was felt that a death would soon occur.  The most unlucky snowdrop was that with a single bloom on its stem.    Other folk traditions were described in a 1913 folklore handbook which claims that if a snowdrop was brought indoors it will make the cows milk watery and affect the colour of the butter.  Even as late as 1969 in ‘The Folklore of Plants’  it was stated that having a snowdrop indoors could affect the number of eggs that a sitting chicken might hatch.  A very powerful plant if these are all to be believed – you have been warned!

It’s amazing that this little flower has so many associations and legends connected with it but I always see it as a harbinger of spring, rebirth and an indication of warmer days to come.

But the snowdrop also has a surprise.  This came courtesy of the Urban Countryman page on Facebook – not all social media is time wasting!  If you very gently turn over a snowdrop bloom you will find that the underside is even prettier and they also vary depending on the snowdrop variety.

Here is a small selection from my local churchyard and one from Kensal Green cemetery.

So don’t underestimate the snowdrop – it’s a plant associated with life and death but watch out for your hens and the colour of your butter if you do decide to tempt fate…..

 

©Carole Tyrrell text and photos unless otherwise stated

References:

http://www.plantlore.com

http://www.independent.co.uk/environment/naturestudies/bright-in-winters-depths-why-the-flawless-flower-of-candlemas-is-ajoy-forever-8483967

http://www.flowermeaning.com/snowdrop-flower-meaning

http://www.ecoenchantments.co.uk/mysnowdropmagicpage.html

https://scottishwildlifetrust.org.uk/2014/03/natures-death-tokens/

 

 

 

 

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Wildlife in Cemeteries – no 9 – The Goth Moths are coming!

Six Spot Burnet moth Brompton Cemetery July 2018
©Carole Tyrrell

As we prowled the side paths bordering Brompton Cemetery’s celebrated Courtoy Mausoleum  on an Exploring Butterflies day in June of the this year, we also discovered roughly half a dozen caterpillars. They were  unconcernedly munching away on wildflowers or ambling along grass stalks. Usually caterpillars are always so well hidden and camouflaged, especially in long grass, but there they were.

These two attractive specimens  would develop into day flying moths whose presence and colouring were very appropriate to a cemetery.  In fact they could almost be known as the Goth Moths.

Cinnabar moth caterpillars Brompton Cemetery June 2018
©Carole Tyrrell

These stripey beasts feasting on ragwort are the caterpillars of the Cinnabar moth.  When they transform into moths their colouring is very dramatic in scarlet and black:

Cinnabar moth in all its glory shared under Wiki Creative Commons
©Charles J Sharp Sharp Photography

The other caterpillar was nearby as it quietly made its way along a long stem of grass.  In my opinion, it was another prettily patterned one, which will eventually become the Five Spotted Burnet moth.

Six  Spot Burnet caterpillar Brompton Cemetery June 2018
©Carole Tyrrell

This is another dramatically coloured moth in red and black and it gets its name from the number of red spots on its black wings and one appears at the top of this post.

As Goths like to roost in cemeteries and are known for their black clothes which are often contrasted with bright colours such as scarlet and purple it seemed entirely appropriate to find two examples almost named after them.  It was also great to see caterpillars doing well in such an urban environment so obviously the cemetery’s management plan of leaving areas uncut and left to grow wild is working well for nature in 2018.  Long may it continue!

Mating Six Spot Burnet moth Brompton Cemetery July 2018
©Carole Tyrrell

 

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell

 

 

Wildlife in Cemeteries No 4- Life and Death – springtime flowers

 

An April day in my local churchyard, St George’s and a profusion of Spring flowers on one grave.
©Carole Tyrrell

 

Now that the spring equinox has arrived and winter seems to be coming to an end this is a good time to be visiting cemeteries.  The vegetation will have died back and you can often find little gems which would normally be covered by undergrowth.

But cemeteries also attract many spring flowers as I discovered when I went to photograph Dr James Barry’s tombstone  in Kensal Green cemetery recently.  It was a March day and was initially overcast. But eventually the sun decided to make an appearance despite the slight nip in the air.

As I walked up the main avenue to the Anglican Chapel I noticed that in some areas the large swathes of flowers almost flowed like a colourful carpet between the graves and memorials.  The   backdrop of grey granite, pensive angels, crosses, Turkish men and many others emphasised their bright colours.  Yellows, pinks, blues, whites and purples:  they were all reminders that life goes on.   Some graves were an absolute riot of nodding flower heads as the breeze made them move.

Snowdrops are often seen in churchyards. They are traditionally associated with Candlemas Day on February 2 and are often known as ‘the passing of sorrow.’ They are also called corpse flowers as the unopened bloom has been said to resemble a lifeless body in a shroud.

Here are some of the flowers that I saw, both in Kensal Green and also in my local churchyard:

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©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell