Thursday, 24 January 2013

Week 7: Common snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis)

The snowdrop was @SpeciesofUK from 13th to 19th January 2013.

Common Snowdrops, Galanthus nivalis, are the most widespread of the 19 species in the genus Galanthus, all of which are known as “snowdrops.”

Snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis
[Source: Caroig]

Snowdrops occur from the Ukraine to the Pyrenees, and from Greece to Poland. They are not actually native to the UK. The snowdrop wasn’t recorded wild in the UK until the 1770s.1

They are found in damp woods, streamsides, meadows, amongst scrub and in shady gardens. Snowdrop flowers carpet the ground in the UK between late January and early April. A carpet of snowdrops really is one of the most beautiful natural sights in the UK.

Snowdrop Carpet
[Source: Barry Deakin]

Distinctive features of the Snowdrop

Snowdrop leaves are strap-like, and blue-green in colour. There are two leaves, held flat against each other in bud.
Snowdrops are famous for their simple but beautiful small, drooping white flowers. Snowdrops have only one flower per stem. The stalk itself is 7-15cm long and is leafless.2

The flower of the snowdrop consists six segments - three larger, white ones on the outside, and three on the inside which have notches in the tip. The inner flower segments have a green or green-ish yellow V or U shaped mark towards the tip.3

Snowdrop Flower
[Source: Darkone]

The fruit or seedhead is a small, near-spherical capsule containing tiny pale brown seeds.

Winter and Spring

Snowdrops are known for being one of the earliest UK bulbs to flower. They are traditionally seen to herald the end of the winter.

Snowdrops leaves have hardened tips, enabling the plant to appear early in the year, ever when the ground is hard, frozen or snow-covered.

Snowdrops Emerging through the Snow
[Source: J C D]

The flowering stem is also covered in a small leaf-like spathe, or protective sheath, enabling it to force its way through the hardened ground along with the leaves.
The snowdrop bud is erect at first. It will droop, becoming ‘pendant,’ later.4

The BBC has a time lapse video of snowdrops pushing up through the snow.

The Many Names of the Snowdrop

The name “snowdrop” first appeared in the UK in the seventeenth century.

Other names for snowdrops are Candlemas bells, Mary’s taper, snow piercer, flower of hope, February fairmaids, death’s flower and dingle dangle.5

The name “Candelmas Bells” refers to the belief in folklore that snowdrops flower on Candlemas Day, 2 February.6

Candlemas Bells
[Source: Tim Green]

The name “February fairmaids” also relates to Candlemas, which is otherwise known as the Feast of Purification of St Mary, when village maidens would wear snowdrops as symbols of purity.

The name “Death's flower” relates to the belief that a single flower indicates impending death.

The Latin name for the common snowdrop is Galanthus nivalis. The genus name, Galanthus, means milk-flower, and the species name nivalis means snowy.

Snowdrop Reproduction

Most snowdrops reproduce by division of the bulb rather than by pollination.7

Bulb division is a common method of reproduction in some plants. It is asexual so avoids the hazards of sexual reproduction (seeds/flowers). The snowdrop bulb is never truly dormant as the bulb is always working on next year’s flowers and leaves.

Here is a good summary of the different forms of asexual reproduction in plants, including the snowdrop.
Insect pollination does sometimes happen, in mild weather. The inner petals of the snowdrop produce nectar, attracting foraging bees. Snowdrops are a favourite flower for bees emerging from hibernation early.8

Cultivating Snowdrops

The snowdrop is cultivated widely and commonly planted in gardens and parks in the UK. The snowdrop is one of the most popular of all cultivated bulbous plants. Millions are sold every year.9 It is easy to grow. Once planted, snowdrops spread freely. They need shade, and soil with good drainage.

here are numerous cultivars of snowdrops. Cultivators are plants selected for desirable characteristics which can be maintained by human-controlled propagation, a bit like the way different breeds of dog originated.

A popular and very ancient snowdrop cultivar is the double snowdrop, which has 3-5 outer segments and 12-21 inners.

Double Snowdrops
[Source: Jonathan Billinger]

There are many many other cultivars, include giant snowdrops, snowdrops with long petals, and rare yellow kinds.

To protect populations of the wild variety, international trade in wild snowdrops is heavily restricted, and virtually ceased in 1995 with the last exports from Hungary.10

Uses of Snowdrops

nowdrops are poisonous to humans, especially the bulbs. They can cause nausea, stomach ache, diarrhoea and vomiting. The most common reason snowdrop bulbs are consumed is by being mistaken for onions.11

The snowdrop contains an alkaloid, galanthamine, that is used to slow the progress of early onset Alzheimer’s disease. It was approved for use in UK in 2010. Galanthamine is also used to treat traumatic injuries to the nervous system.12

The snowdrop is also an emmenagogue, meaning it stimulates menstrual flow and so can induce abortion in early pregnancy.13
Snowdrop lectin (GNA) is being studied for its potential in fighting HIV. This lectin is already used as an insecticide against beetles, butterflies and moths, aphids and leafhoppers.14

Strange but True...

Snowdrops flower a lot earlier than they used to. In the 1950s they flowered at the end of February, but now it’s January. This could be linked to the UK experiencing milder winters.

Snowdrops Emerging Early
[Source: Iris Wijngaarden]


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