The snow drop -harbinger of spring.

The snow drop Galanthus nivalis belongs to the family Amaryllidaceae in the Order Asparagales.Snowdrops are instantly recognisable to most people and have long been part of garden flora in Britain, Ireland and Europe.

In the wild Galanthus nivalis occur throughout Europe from the Pyrenees  eastward to the Ukraine, from Germany and Poland southwards to Italy. They are found at 100-1400m above sea level with a comfort zone between 300-600m. It is thought to be a naturalised introduction in the British Isles and is quite rare in the wild in Ireland. { It may be native to parts of western England and Wales}.

They may be encountered in deciduous woodland, occasionally coniferous woodland and on stony slopes, particularly on chalky soils. Where established they carpet the woodland floor and other locations with a display worthy of admiration. 

Galanthus nivalis. Courtesy of H.Zell CC BY-Sa 3.0 License.Galanthus nivalis 001.JPG


Description of Galathus nivalis.

The two grey-green leaves appear very early in the year, quickly followed by the flower stalks. Each flower stalk bears a single nodding flower consisting  of three spreading white sepals, and the much shorter petals marked with green on the inside. { when in bud the flower head is head erect}. the flowers last for quite a long period, from January until March.

The spreading sepals and the green marks on the shorter petals.

Photograph courtesy of Darkone CC By-SA 3.0 License


The leaves continue to grow long after the flowers have faded. The tips of the leaves are thick and toughened to allow them to push through the soil. The leaves are basal and strap to sword shaped.

The flowers are succeeded by a three parted capsule which contain the seeds which are pale brown when ripe. The bulbs are more or less spherical or ovoid in shape. The plants tend to have a clump forming habit and they grow to the height of 10-20cm.

The genus name of Galanthus derives from the Greek gala meaning milk and anthos meaning flower, alluding to the flower colour. the specific name of nivialis derives from Latin and indicates snow. again alluding to the colour of the bloom.

CULTIVARS---Snowdrops have been cultivated for centuries and many different species have escaped to become naturalised in the wild at a local level. It is thought that there are over 200 cultivated varieties cultivated for garden situations. There are currently efforts under way to discover some of the old varieties that are in danger of becoming extinct in the horticultural sense. . many people may have old varieties growing in their gardens without realising the significance of them.

Garden varieties are numerous- 

Photograph courtesy of Redsimon CC BY-SA 3.0 license.

Snow drops and medicine.

It is not commonly known that snowdrops are used in medicine. However, it is not a species for home made preparations. there are cases on record of people mistaking the bulbs for wild onions and being poisoned after eating them.

There is little mention of snowdrops in herbal literature, even if one tries to discover information by using some of their old titles such as bulbous violet or Viola alba, there is scant information available.

Mrs. M. Greive's in " A Modern Herbal" informs us that an old glossary of 1465 classses it as an emmenagogue, and elsewhere placed under narcissi; its healing properties are stated to be digestive, resolutive, and consolidante"

Modern day science has discovered that the bulb of the snowdrop produces a substance known as Galantamin lycorum, and, along with other constituents are thought to slow down Alziemer's disease. it is also thought to be helpful against poliomyelitis and nueralgia.  Poliomyelitis is an active infectious viral disease, especially affecting children. It is a paralytic form {acute anterior poliomyelitis} the brain and spinal chord are involved, causing weakness, paralysis and wasting of muscles. The word poliomyelitis is often just shortened to polio. In this country and many other developed countries the disease as all but been wiped out by vaccinations, however, it still occurs in the world in undeveloped regions. 

There are large crops of daffodils grown in Wales which produce a similar substance that can be extracted from the bulbs to be used medicinally to combat the symptoms of Alziemer's .

Snowdrops are thought to be beneficial in use against memory problems, nerve pains and myasthenia. { Myasthenia is a chronic progressive disease in which muscles especially those of the head and face become weak and easily fatigued.

Snowdrop lectin {Galanthus nivalis agglutinin} is regarded as an effective insecticide. Trials are currently taking place to see if the substance can be used commercially as a pest resistant spray.

Climate change and snowdrops

At Kew gardens {England} a careful watch is kept on how climate change has/is affecting species of flora. In the case of snowdrop Galanthus nivalis records show that in the 1950s, the flowers commonly opened at the end of February, but over the decades flowers have gradually opened earlier. Since the 1990s the flowers have opened during January.

Conservation issues.

Snowdrops are rated as near threatened in the wild, according to the IUCN Red List criteria.

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