“Né v’lo l’èrnouvé ― les bouonnefemmes sont dêhalées”
At this time of year, common snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) can be found throughout Jersey’s countryside, marking the arrival of spring. Snowdrops thrive in hedgerows and woodlands which are dark in the summer but open during their growing season in the winter, allowing light to the plants during their growing season but protection for the bulbs during dormancy. After producing long, strappy leaves from the bulb, the crowning feature of the snowdrop is the bell-like, six-petalled flower composed of three inner and three outer petals. Snowdrops reproduce by both bulb and seed, forming large drifts in undisturbed ground.
In Jersey-French, snowdrops are known as ‘des bouonnefemmes,’ literally translating as ‘good women’. According to the late Dr Frank Le Maistre, author of the Jersey-French Dictionary, this is due to the flower’s resemblance to women’s old-fashioned summer petticoats, being both bell-shaped and white. In regular French, the snowdrop is known as ‘perce-neige,’ meaning literally ‘snow piercer,’ highlighting the resilience of the fragile-looking plant which flowers in the toughest of seasons. The Latin species name ‘nivalis’ denotes the colour of the ‘snowy-white’ flowers, which charismatically adorn our woodlands and hedgerows.
Other English names, such as Candlemas Bells and Fair Maids of February are discussed by Shirreffs in the new book ‘The Wild Flowers of Jersey,’ published in 2015. The former name, according to Shirreffs, marks the fact that English girls used to collect the flowers to decorate on Candlemas Day in early February, and likewise the latter name references the same month when snowdrops typically flower.
Despite us considering the snowdrop a ‘wild’ flower, they were originally introduced to Jersey, probably arriving sometime in the fifteenth century. In the UK, many believe that the snowdrop may have been introduced by the Romans, however it is now more generally agreed that they were introduced at a later date. We are aware that they were definitely present in England by the time Elizabeth I came to power. The late introduction of the flower is also recognised in our neighbouring region of Normandy, where the flower is considered to have been ‘introduced to the region, then naturalised’ in the past few hundred years.
Locally, there appears to be a tale that soldiers introduced the snowdrops to Jersey when returning from conflict in the Crimea. Although this seems a romantic notion, the first record for snowdrops precedes that of the Crimean wars, meaning that this story is probably untrue.
According to Frances Le Sueur, author of ‘the Flora of Jersey’, snowdrops have a confused history locally as their naturalisation seems to have been gradual and disputed. She notes that in 1834, a local botanist by the name of Ereaut wrote they were ‘Common on hedges,’ however by 1896, another local botanist, Piquet, described them as ‘very rare’ and ‘formerly common,’ implying that the species faced a sharp and unexplained decline.
Le Sueur also notes a remark by another botanist, Lester-Garland, from 1903 ― wherein he states that he had ‘never seen it outside a garden or orchard’ in Jersey, implying that snowdrops weren’t naturalised but were rather still domestic. It has been suggested that the decline in snowdrops in the nineteenth century may have been a consequence of a shift in farming methods, however this remains unconfirmed. Subsequently their populations have grown, and large drifts are common in the countryside.
Where to find them
Whether you know them as Snowdrops, Perce-Neige, Bouonnefemmes, Candlemass Bells or Fair Maids of February, it’s hard not to notice the magnificent sprays of white flowers found in hedgerows, woodlands, valleys and gardens in Jersey in early spring. In many ways they herald the start of the botanical season, being some of the earliest flowers to appear, and their tiny, delicate nodding bells are something to look out for on winter walks. Good places to find them include Jardin d’Olivet (pictured), Grève de Lecq woods, Rozel Valley and La Hougue Bie.
If you have spotted snowdrops in Jersey, please let us know by submitting a record.
Researched and written by Dominic Hodnett for the Jersey Biodiversity Centre, February 2017.
About the author : Dominic Hodnett is an amateur nature enthusiast and member of La Société Jersiaise, an environmental and heritage organisation founded in Jersey in 1873. He is in his final year at Victoria College and hopes to start studying Law at university in the autumn. Dominic is also a former employee of Jersey Heritage and a volunteer at the Jersey Archive.
- Pg 65, Le Maistre, ‘Dictionnaire Jersiais-Français’ Don Balleine, 1976 ed. « ‘aux bonnes femmes d’autrefois habillées en blanc en été » etc,
- Pg 22, Shirreffs, ‘The Wild Flowers of Jersey’ Brambleby Books, 2015
- Plate 87 and annotation, Provost, ‘Atlas de répartition des plantes vasculaires de Basse-Normandie’ Presse Universitaires de Caen, 1993 « une sylvatique montagnarde, manifestement introduite dans la région, puis naturalisée » etc
- Pg 182, Le Sueur, ‘Flora of Jersey’ La Société Jersiaise, 1984
- Pg 25, Bird, ‘A Gardener’s Latin’ The National Trust 2015