In my garden, the first sign of spring looks like more snow

There is a kind of snowdrop that flowers in the summer, but it's not very convincing, seasonally speaking. Not the genuine article, somehow. If ever there were a plant that belongs to the winter, this is it - with its pure white drop-earrings, dangling shiveringly and responsive to the slightest breeze, yet proof against the lowest temperatures. Every winter the reappearance of clutches and clusters of snowdrops is a glad sight in our garden - the first sign of the year waking up. This season we have more of them than last. They don't decrease, snowdrops. Not at all.

But when we moved to Glasgow, there wasn't a snowdrop in our garden. This was something I knew had to change.

One winter afternoon we happened to drive in the country past a gate through which we could see a spectacular sight. On both sides of the driveway that led to a large house, the grass of an orchard was smothered in snowdrops.

I had seen similar snowdrop colonization under trees around farmhouses in the Yorkshire Dales and north into Cumbria. They suggested longtime habitation, and I've since discovered that where you find vast spreads of this bulb, there often turns out to have been a monastery nearby, perhaps now in ruin or vanished. The old monks evidently had a thing about snowdrops.

On this occasion in Scotland, I stopped the car, left my embarrassed wife in it, marched up to the front door of the house, and rang the bell. The instant the man opened the door, I knew I had made a mistake. But I asked him anyway: Would he be willing to let me buy a dozen snowdrop bulbs from him? I explained that I had recently moved to a garden without them, and I told him in complete sincerity how splendid his looked.

"No," he said unsmilingly. "No, we don't do that sort of thing." His gruffness suggested that I had asked him to commit some unspeakable crime. I retreated abashed. His several million snowdrops remained uninvaded.

A year or two later I had much more joy with a different owner of a prolific snowdrop collection. But even this more positive experience suggested that there may be a degree of eccentricity surrounding snowdrops. In this case, though, it was entirely benevolent. The lady in question (and she really was a titled "Lady") was distinctly aristocratic and of uncertain vintage. We came to know her as Lady Puddleduck. This was because I had phoned her one morning to ask if she had any idea where I might buy a live duck or two.

She had said, "A live what or two?"

"Duck," I said.

"Ah! You mean a puddleduck!" She had, unquestionably, been brought up on Bea-trix Potter, author of the "Tale of Jemima Puddleduck."

Lady Puddleduck lived on a very large family estate with a gigantic rambling house, and it was clear that she and her distinguished family were racking their thought buds to find ways to pay for the place's upkeep. The paying public had access. And she ran a garden center where, with persistence, one could usually discover her in one of the greenhouses. She knew her plants and shrubs well, and we bought some gems from her. You had to learn to accommodate her stentorian upper-class delivery, but I believe she had a heart of gold. And anyway, she looked as if she were the under-gardener, wearing a tatty old gardening raincoat, caked Wellington boots, and earthy gloves.

True British "aristos" often dress down so low that they would shame a scarecrow. Her husband dressed a little better - after all, he had been the last governor of a Middle Eastern British dependency up to the time of its independence, and he was a cousin, I believe, of one of our postwar prime ministers. He was the politest person I have ever met.

His wife didn't know where we could obtain a puddleduck. But much later, after I had seen snowdrops in her woods, she was magnanimously happy to sell us as many snowdrops as we wanted. I think we bought about a hundred. They cost little. We collected them "in the green," which is the correct time to move snowdrops, just after flowering has finished and well before the leaves die down.

It is from our puddleduck batch of snowdrops that our own snowdrop colony has developed. They do appreciate a degree of human assistance, since they don't seed easily. Every year I dig up clumps, divide them into separate bulbs, and plant them in spaces that are snowdropless. This campaign is working well, and I intend to have what might finally be described as a snowdrop drift.

If ever there were a snowy flower, this is it. You'd think, therefore, that it would be alpine, but no. Oddly, it belongs to valley rather than mountain habitats. Ours do best under fruit trees, and they brighten that gloomy place marvelously for weeks - until it gets too warm for them and they finally go to seed.

I love them en masse (who wouldn't?), but the individual snowdrop is a tiny miracle of neatness and simplicity. Its design is immaculate, a masterpiece of economy. Admittedly, it is the single variety I'm talking about. This seems to be the archetypal snowdrop. There is a "double" snowdrop (we have these, too) that is just as common and prolific. But like many double flowers, to me the double snowdrop resembles those extravagant hats on Ladies' Day at Ascot (think "My Fair Lady") - fussy, elaborate, and over the top. It just has too many frilly petals.

Mind you, it's a very small flower. At a distance it still has all the brightness of a single snowdrop.

Minutely inspected, an individual snowdrop flower has exquisite delicacy. Three graceful petals curve downward to form a tight purse that protects an inner bell. This white purse hangs from a green bullet (like a miniature jelly bean), itself suspended from the slenderest stem imaginable. The purse opens in due time, enchantingly spreading its three wings like a white insect. The inner bell, revealed, bears a decoration of remarkable finesse: three minuscule green mustaches, one on each side.

Few flowers are as sparingly and precisely lovely. And few are as willing to completely take over the world and speckle it with endless points of whiteness - with a little help from its friends.

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