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27 january 2017

Yes, I actually read a book about snowdrops, even though they don't really grow in Texas and I can't remember ever seeing one. It may be that I will read books about anything. On the other hand, I will toss aside bad or indifferent books, even on topics I love, with great decisiveness. So if I read an entire book about a subject I know little and care less about, it may be an indication of the book's quality.

Gail Harland's prose, in Snowdrop, lacks narrative and transitions. It's a well-structured volume, but it reduces to a list of one thing after another. Still, the list topos allows Harland to develop a picture of a peculiarly captivating group of bulb flowers that has inspired devotion, even obsession.

Snowdrops are small drooping white flowers that come up, along with spare green foliage, in late winter. The French call the snowdrop perce-neige, snowpiercer, and they often literally break through crusts of snow, enhancing their appearance by contrast. You can fall in love with them just from the photographs that Harland prints in her book.

Snowdrops are from the genus Galanthus. In Texas we have the similar Leucojum, the snowflake, a bulb not nearly so prized by collectors. Being English, and writing for the British publisher Reaktion, Harland's lore centers on the determination of many a British snowdrop enthusiast. One of the more charming figures in Harland's pages is a man named Heyrick Anthony Greatorex, who lived on an East Anglian estate with his wife Janette from 1917 till 1952. Wounded in the first World War, Greatorex apparently had some independent means and put them in the service of raising hybrid snowdrops. His former home still includes a tract known as "Snowdrop Acre." Such snowdrop sites abound in Britain, often on the grounds of ancient monasteries. New strains of snowdrop are continually found at these places.

Snowdrop mania approaches the historical tulip mania of Holland. Theft of bulbs is apparently a significant risk for fanciers. It can't be the mere color of the flower (very spare) or its showiness (quite subtle) that drives this extreme fancy. Perhaps it has something to do with its typological attributes. The perce-neige is one of the first living things to make it back after a hard winter. In Romania, the flower is associated with a folk hero. "He fought the dragon and freed the sun but died from his wounds. Where his blood fell, snowdrops spouted from the earth" (84). This Carpathian hybrid of St. George and Adonis speaks to the reverence people hold, everywhere, for the deciduously reborn.

Harland, Gail. Snowdrop. London: Reaktion, 2016.