THE SNOWDROP (Galanthus nivalis)
Their botanical name is Galanthus, meaning “milk flower”, derived from the Greek gala, meaning “milk” and anthos meaning “flower”. The species name “nivalis” is Latin for snowy or snow covered. They are members of the Amaryllidaceae family and therefore are relatives of alliums (onions), narcissus (daffodils) and nerines.
There are some 20 species that grow across Europe and into the Middle East.
Snowdrops are perennial herbaceous plants that grow from bulbs. Each bulb produces 2 or 3 greeny-grey linear leaves and a flower stalk that carries a single, pendulous, bell-shaped white flower. The flower petals are technically tepals, the term applied when there is no differentiation between the flower’s sepals and petals. The outer 3 tepals are large and more convex. The inner 3 are smaller and are usually marked with a green or yellowish bridge-shaped mark over the small notch (or sinus) at the tip.
Flowers can be singles or doubles. In doubles, the stamens (male parts) have become small petals and therefore doubles are sterile.
Snowdrops are pollinated by insects but because not many are active when they flower, not much seed is produced. The seed is white and has a small fleshy tail that contains substances attractive to ants which distribute it.
The main method of reproduction is through offsets from the bulb.
The leaves and flowers appear in late winter and early spring before grasses swamp them or leaves from the trees above cut out the sunshine. Nutrients are stored in the bulb and the leaves die back a few weeks after the flower has faded.
The bulbs do not like to dry out in summer and do best where they have some shade.
Snowdrops announce the arrival of spring. In his poem “To A Snowdrop” (1819), William Wordsworth used the phrase “harbinger of spring” that is still commonly applied to the snowdrop. Because they are one of the first flowers to appear, snowdrops have become symbols of hope, purity, cleansing and consolation.
One species, Galanthus reginae-olgae, from Greece and Sicily, flowers in the autumn.
Fans and passionate collectors of snowdrops are called galanthophiles. They have bred them to produce variations in flower, stalk and leaf size and in the shape and colour of markings on the tepals. There are over 500 named cultivars and particularly new or rare cultivars can fetch prices of hundreds of pounds for a single bulb.
Snowdrops are poisonous but do contain a substance called galanthamine which appears to improve the working of certain receptors in the brain. Galanthamine is used in the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease under the name of Reminyl.