THE diminutive snowdrop might just be our toughest flower. This slender-necked beauty shuns the soft breeze of May and pollen-filled haze of high summer to instead reveal itself when the hard days of winter are still in full swing.

February, when the landscape can be wrapped away under snow or stricken with frost is when snowdrops collectively choose to raise their heads.

Dipping in white unison, they serve to defy the chill winds with the promise of the warmer, brighter days to come.

The snowdrop seems the very essence of British springtime. They gather in drifts - bringing a shock of colour to drab and lifeless woodland edges, or creep in pearl brush strokes, hugging the contours of hedge banks.

Snowdrop fanatic and botanist Dr Trevor Dines from wildlife charity Plantlife explains: "If snowdrops were a shade of yellow or blue, they just wouldn't be the same. That combination of pure white and fresh green epitomises the first flower of spring - pure and born of the snow. In fact, the Latin name of the most common species - nivalis - means snowy or, more perhaps more appropriately, snow-covered."

The snowdrop is phenomenally hardy. Anti-freeze proteins in their tissues give the plants an extremely high tolerance to freezing conditions. These proteins help prevent damaging ice crystals from forming and reduce the size of any crystals that do manage to form, which lessens damage to the plant's cells.

Snowdrops even seem able to rise from the dead. Dr Dines explains: "On very cold, frosty nights you might see clumps of snowdrops collapsed with freezing stress, but since the tissue is actually undamaged, they recover as soon as temperatures rise. Apparently, the anti-freeze is so effective snowdrop bulbs were used to de-ice First World War tanks."

Our collective affection for snowdrops is no doubt linked to their ubiquity - they are very easy to stumble upon.

Snowdrops are found throughout the British Isles but are especially common in south-west England and south-west Wales where they thrive in the region's mild, damp winters.

But, shockingly, for a plant we associate so strongly with the UK and with British springtime, the snowdrop hides a secret - it is not a native species after all!

Dr Dines reveals: "Snowdrops are not actually native to the British Isles. The first botanists began formally noting and recording the plants that grew around them in the wild In the 1600s. But there's no mention of snowdrops until 1778 - a very late date for such a prominent and early-flowering plant."

It is thought that the snowdrop was first brought to the UK from its native mountain home in the late 1590s to titillate gardeners. They soon escaped the confines of greenhouses and gardens to conquer the wider countryside.

But despite being non-native they have proved to cause little if any harm, to UK wildlife and have successfully found their own niche amongst woodland and hedgerow flowers.

Naturally, the snowdrop's stronghold lies amidst the mountains of the Pyrenees, eastward to Ukraine and southwards to Italy, Albania and northern Greece, where they grow in rocky woodland, often on cool north-facing slopes.

Dr Dines adds: "They're naturally early flowering, making the most of warmer spells at the very end of winter to attract any pollinating insects that have emerged early and have nowhere else to feed, although in Britain there are no such pollinators - another clue to their non-native origin - and almost all of our snowdrops reproduce by division of the bulbs rather than by seed."

Unusual cultivars of snowdrop are hot property amongst collectors - 'galanthophiles' - who are willing to pay mind-boggling sums for rare varieties. One bulb changed hands in 2012 for a record price of £725.

A far cheaper way to enjoy the beautiful snowdrop spectacle that marks the wane of winter is simply to wander into your local wood.