Galanthus (snowdrops), part I — Garden and community

The end of winter brings the joy of a new beginning more than 2300 years later.

Some Galanthus woronowii bloom for the first time under an olive tree in the Garden. With undisguised emotion, I quote this simple phrase from the first botanist in history.

Of the flowers, the first to appear is the white violet; where the air is mild, it appears as soon as winter comes, but, where it is more severe, later, sometimes in spring.

Tῶν δ’ ἁνθῶν τὀ μἑν πρῶτον ἑκφαἱνεται τὁ λευκόἲον, ὅπου μἑν ό ἀἠρ μαλακώτερος εὐθὑς τοῦ χειμῶνος, ὅπου δἐ σκληρότερος ὕστερον, ἑνιαχοῡ τοῡ ἣρος.

Theophrastus, Inquiry into Plants¹

Tyrtamus, nicknamed “Theophrastus” by his master Aristotle, writes or dictates these words on papyrus over 2300 years ago.

It is the first encounter with a Galanthus that has not been lost in the fog of centuries, forgotten by generations. It is the first written testimony concerning a humble but coveted flower, which has even become the obsession of some fierce Galanthophiles.

Theophrastus calls this plant λευκόἲον, from λευκος “white” + ἰόν “violet”, wrongly classifying it together with violets. This is a more than forgivable mistake if we know that Theophrastus is considered the founder of taxonomy, the discipline that deals with the classification of living and inanimate beings.

We can imagine the Greek scholar walking under the arcades of the Lyceum, founded by Aristotle at the gates of Athens: the Peripatetic School. A storm of students follows him, hanging from his lips. It is a circle of close disciples, as his lectures sometimes gather an audience of nearly 2,000 people. The sound of the sandals echoes between the walls of the school. It serves as background to long philosophical discussions. In the institute’s garden, we see Theophrastus bending down and gently lifting the flower head of the first snowdrop to better show the flower. Around him, attentive eyes and wrinkled expressions.

A flower of Galanthus woronowii, whose bulbs I planted in autumn under an olive tree.

But Theophrastus’s face is serene. He’s in the garden left to him by his teacher and dear friend Aristotle, when he was forced to leave Athens. The story of the Lyceum is a story of friendship too.

Both Aristotle and Theophrastus had been Plato’s disciples. Although Tyrtamus recognized Aristotle as a teacher, the age difference between the two was small enough to allow them an equal relationship.

While Aristotle had focused more on animals, Theophrastus reserved a large part of his work for plants. The fruit of this work was collected in two works: the Περὶ Φυτῶν Ιστορία (Perì phutòn istoria), The Inquiry into Plants and the Περὶ φυτικῶν αἰτιῶν (Perì phutikòn aitiòn), On the Causes of Plants. The first work deals with the morphology and classification of plants, while the second mainly deals with their reproduction and physiology.

Theophrastus ended up becoming Aristotle’s natural choice for the direction of the Peripatetic School after his death. This event must have been both a blessing and a torture. In that place, Tyrtamus could satisfy his thirst for knowledge. He enjoyed an exclusive position and was very respected by the Athenians, to the point of almost exiling those who accused him unjustly. He probably had good relations with Alexander III of Macedon (Μέγας Ἀλέξανδρος, Alexander the Great) from whose eastern part of the kingdom he received news about exotic plants which he then collected in his studies of him.

All this, however, will have had a price if his last words certainly do not hide some bitterness towards fame and a desire to have more time to live.

In the major work of Diogenes Laertius, Lives of the Philosophers, we find an answer to some students who asked him what were his last words on his deathbed:

[…] many of the pleasures which life boasts are but in the seeming. For when we are just beginning to live, lo! we die. Nothing then is so unprofitable as the love of glory. Farewell, and may you be happy. Either drop my doctrine, which involves a world of labour, or stand forth its worthy champions, for you will win great glory.

Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers²

If you do something, well, do it right. Time is short. A written testament follows these words:

I give and bequeath to such of my friends hereinafter named as may wish to study literature and philosophy there in common,” since it is not possible for all men to be always in residence, on condition that no one alienates the property or devotes it to his private use, but so that they hold it like a temple in joint possession and live, as is right and proper, on terms of familiarity and friendship.

Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers²

The Peripatetic School’s Garden must have been a wonderful place, where plants and human souls flourished. Among the arcades of the institute gathered people with an ardent passion for knowledge and an insatiable curiosity. In the garden beauty and the pleasure of questioning oneself and others’ existence ruled.

It was a place born of friendship, for friendship. It was a place to grow and care for. It was a place that had to remain open, but not too much.

It wasn’t public, owned by everyone or anyone, but had to be entrusted to specific names: Hipparchus, Neleus, Strato, Callinus, Demotimus, Demaratus, Callisthenes, Melantes, Pancreon, Nicippus. In short, a community which, in Theophrastus’s intention, was the only one capable of ensuring the continuity of that splendid free corner of the world.

In these words, the desire of a dying man reverberates over the centuries and resounds in the souls of many of us who find an oasis of peace and sharing in the garden. We rediscover that conviviality, now fortunately open to women too, which brings us the joy of living and meeting each other.

For me, observing a Galanthus reflects all of this. It means remembering the bright days in the company of Wim, a retired floriculturist consultant from Hillegom, Holland, who gave me, perhaps with a certain irony, a dozen bulbs of Galanthus nivalis.

Now the bulbs are about a hundred, survived and naturalized, in the Garden.

At the end of February Galanthus nivalis plants have already lost their flowers but show their tender leaves in the shadow of a Robinia pseudoacacia tree. They have been positioned to the north side to better withstand the summer heat.

[1] Theophrastus, Enquiry into Plants. London: William Heinemann New York, 1916, p. 49.

[2] Diogenes Laertius, Lives of Eminent Philosophers. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1959, p. 487.

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Web designer and passionate gardener. For years he has been exploring the fruitful intersection between awareness, nature, technology and human relationships.

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Andrea Magoni

Andrea Magoni

Web designer and passionate gardener. For years he has been exploring the fruitful intersection between awareness, nature, technology and human relationships.

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