WINTER has finally gripped my car in its icy grasp this week. Most mornings I’ve had to chip off the frost, both inside and out, while cursing man’s failure to invent a can of de-icer that is not impossibly cold to hold.

As I’ve been scrapping, out of the corner of my eye I’ve caught sight of some galanthus nivalis – “the snowy milk-flower” – gallantly pushing their dainty white heads up through the iron-hard earth.

They are Candlemas bells, Mary's tapers, snowpiercers, February fairmaids or dingle-dangles. They are snowdrops.

Their bell-like heads demurely droop but I reckon, as I scrape, I can practically hear them tinkling in the chill snow-wind.

They are called Candlemas bells because they are traditionally in flower by Candlemas – February 2, although this year, our first ones were well ablaze on New Year’s Day. Candlemas is the celebration of the Purification of the Virgin Mary, 40 days after the birth of Christ, and the Candlemas bells – symbols of purity and light – were processed into church.

Candlemas was also a pre-Christian festival of midwinter, the midpoint between the shortest day and the spring equinox, and their whiteness is a precursor of brighter times. So vivid are they that in the days when toilets were outside, people planted them along the path so that in the grey gloaming of January there was a bright guide to the privy.

Surprisingly, they are not a native bulb. They seem to originate from the Black Sea area of Turkey and Russia, and were probably introduced by the Romans, who regarded them as "stars brought down from heaven".

Snowdrops are first mentioned growing in a British garden in 1597, but it wasn’t until the Crimean War in the 1850s that they became popular. In the Crimea, British soldiers were amazed at how the snowdrops (galanthus plicatus) carpeted the landscape like a fall of snow, and so they brought a few home as souvenirs – some posted them back to their sweethearts.

The snowdrop became the emblem of the war, like the poppy represents the fallen of the First, and Victorians back home soon went mad for the snowdrop – they became the first galanthophiles. Plant collectors were despatched to seek out new varieties – one they returned with was galanthus reginaeolgae named after the 19th Century Queen Olga of Greece, who was Prince Philip's grandmother (the Olga is actually the earliest of snowdrops as it begins flowering in October).

Others went into the deepest recesses of their greenhouses to cultivate new varieties. One amateur gardener was the Provost of Dumfries, and his creation, galanthus Sam Arnott, took his name. His grandson, Professor David Arnott, was well-known in Bedale as a local history researcher until he died in 2003 and I believe there are still Arnotts in Teesdale, surrounded by bulbs.

But not everyone is a galanthophile. It is said that you should never take pity on a fallen snowdrop and bring it into the house as it will turn cows’ milk watery and turn the colour of your butter.

In the outdoors, though, you can only admire their resilience. Their tips are tempered to pierce the frozen ground and their sap contains an antifreeze so they can resist winter’s icy grip – it’s a shame Nissan haven’t treated the Qashqai windscreen with a similar substance.