Saturday 24 March 2018

Mary's Tapers blooming in the frosty sunlight

Country Matters

‘VEGETABLE SNOW’ POET: Portrait of Thomas Tickell by Sylvester Harding in the British Museum
‘VEGETABLE SNOW’ POET: Portrait of Thomas Tickell by Sylvester Harding in the British Museum

Joe Kennedy

A silver birch, which had been planted in all its lonesomeness many years before, gave some shelter from sleet driven by an icy wind.

Drooping their bedraggled heads, small straggling clumps of snowdrops (galanthus nivalus) made a brave showing. One clump, more advanced than the others, showed the benefit of the tree's protection.

A poet who once lived in the Botanic Gardens at Glasnevin in Dublin, called these fair maids of February "vegetable snow". His name was Thomas Tickell and he was inspired by the little flowers he observed while walking through Kensington Gardens in London - "seeds to light/A stem that bends with flowerlets of milky white."

In some cemeteries you may see these historical little plants bursting through rain-soaked compost that recalls Dylan Thomas's "force that through the green fuse drives the flower/Drives my green age…"

There is a lingering sadness about Thomas's words which fall slowly as time advances: "And I am dumb to tell a weather's wind/How time has ticked a heaven round the stars."

Tickell was a friend of some famous writers of his time, such as Joseph Addison, Swift, Goldsmith and Samuel Johnson. Addison, editor of The Spectator, is remembered with place-names at Glasnevin. Tickell was a government official married to a Clotilda Eustace, of Harristown, Co Kildare, whose uncle, Sir Maurice Eustace, was Lord Chancellor under Charles II. The couple lived at Carnalway but their Dublin home was in what is now the director's house in the Botanic Gardens.

Convent gardens, monastic ruins and old graveyards are the traditional places of the beautiful snowdrop. Newer plantings would be from horticultural stock of which there are about 80 varieties, including one called Galanthus Colbourne, which can cost up to €30. Plants in the wild came to Ireland first, it is believed, in the satchels of monks returning from preaching the Gospel in darkest Europe.

The flowers bloomed in open woodland from Switzerland to the Lebanon. The Romans are credited with bringing them to Britain and they are found in the recesses of history: Theophrastus mentions them as growing on Mount Hynettos in 300 BC.

The Christian Church has laid a traditional claim to the flower as a symbol of Candlemas, the Feast of the Purification, 40 days after Christmas, and the day of the presentation of Jesus in the Temple. An old name for the blooms, Mary's Tapers, has guaranteed their respectful care in convent gardens.

Snowdrops thrive on neglect, multiplying in congested clumps, dispersing by being carried along riverbanks in flooding and taking root elsewhere. They also spread, of course, by lifting and dividing, though it is illegal to remove certain plants from the wild. You may get a gift from a gardener, though, and now is the time to introduce this honey-smelling flower to some damp and shady place rather than in autumn when the bulbs are dry.

Tickell (1686-1760) may not be universally remembered for his poetry but there is a memorial tablet to him at St Mobhi's Church in Glasnevin. He lies in the churchyard nearby where some vegetable snow thrives in the frosty sunlight.

Sunday Independent

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