Snow-piercers bloom in time for Candlemas

Snowdrops bloom in time for Candlemas.
Snowdrops bloom in time for Candlemas.
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The last thing we need is more rain, yet that’s the reputation of February fill-dyke. Folklore says it’s a good thing: “All the months of the year curse a fair February.”

Whatever the next few weeks may bring, spring is on its way. The first catkins are showing, dangling like lengths of brown cord from the bare hazels. And the first flowers are in bloom – snowdrops, those Fair Maids of February, aren’t held back by frost or snow.

Tough leaf tips allow snowdrops to spear through frozen soil, hence their old name of snow-piercer. Before the Reformation the bulbs were grown at religious sites so the flowers could decorate the altar at Candlemas on February 2. This earned snowdrops the name of candlemas bells.

Some used to believe that snowdrops purified the house, others that it was unlucky to bring them indoors. Yet the flowers can only be fully appreciated up close – inside the outer bell are three small petals marked with a green crescent. Defy the old superstition and bring some inside to enjoy their delicate scent.

Candlemas is a Christian festival dedicated to the Purification of the Virgin Mary. The English name, dating from 1014, was inspired by the abundance of candles lit to celebrate Christ as the Light of the World.

Oddly, February 2 was when shoemakers and other trades stopped working by candlelight. “At Candlemas,” it was said, “throw candle and candlestick away,” which seems a bit premature given the nature of the month.

However, the same day can tell us if the worst of winter is over. “If Candlemas Day be clear and bright, winter will have another flight. But if it be dark with clouds and rain, winter is gone and will not come again.” But watch out for February 7 to 14, one of the cold periods identified by Victorian meteorologist, Alexander Buchan.

Lights in darkness

This is a good time for planet watching – the snag is we have to be up early. Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn are all visible in the pre-dawn sky, which last happened in 2005.

The planets are spread across the southern sky, but start with Venus in the southeast – it’s the brightest thing in the sky. With a clear view of the horizon you might pick out Mercury below left of Venus, although it is very low down.

To the right of Venus, higher up, is Saturn. Reddish Mars lies in the south, and yellowish Jupiter in the southwest. While the best alignment is said to occur on February 5, take advantage of any cloudless early morning until February 20.

The arrival of a Briton on the International Space Station was a cause for celebration, and there’s plenty of time yet for waving to Tim Peake as he glides overhead.

With its steady pace, and huge solar array reflecting sunlight, the ISS is easily found. But because its orbit changes, we need to know exactly when to look.

To receive up to date predictions go to NASA’s website and sign up to “Spot the Station”. The ISS will make a series of passes over the UK in February, so let’s hope for some clear, calm nights.