This week’s plant highlight is the common snowdrop, for me the sign of snowdrops flowering marks the end of winter – spring is just around the corner! There are hundreds of snowdrops in the arboretum at Ashridge, I have to watch where I’m walking to make sure I don’t tread on them! I hope you enjoy this week’s plant profile. 🙂
Common name: Snowdrop
Translation: From the Greek gala meaning “milk” and anthos “a flower”, in regards to its whiteness. The nivalis is Greek again, translating as “snowy”.
Type of plant: Bulb (perennial)
The ideal growing conditions for Galanthus nivalis are in semi shade, in most and well-drained soil.
Soil: Galanthus nivalis thrives in most soil types and pHs, including: acid, alkaline or neutral: and chalk, clay, sand or loam.
Resilience: Very hardy.
Propagation: Propagation is easiest by seed or division once the foliage has died back.
Cultivation: Galanthus nivalis is one of the most popular of all cultivated bulbous plants, because they are so easy to grow and because a large number of cultivars are available. Once planted they increase freely, producing new bulbs as offsets, and impressive drifts can be easily obtained after some years. They are commonly found in woodlands, but are also seen in meadows, pasture, amongst scrub, near rivers and on stony slopes, particularly on calcareous (chalky) soils.
Pest and disease problems: Galanthus nivalis can get narcissus bulb fly and slugs, and may be infected by grey mould.
1. Geophyte is the collective term for the type of plant structure that stores water and nutrients in an underground part of the plant – this refers to bulbs, corms, tubers and rhizomes.
Bulbs have lots of layers, just like an onion. If you cut them open you can see they are made up of scales which are modified leaves that store food. Tulips, daffodils, hyacinths and snowdrops are prime examples of bulbs.
Corms look similar to bulbs, however if you cut them open you would see they don’t have scales. They are modified stem tissue that store food, prime examples are crocosmia, gladiolus, freesias and crocuses.
Tubers are very different to bulbs and corms, you know one already – the potato! There are also tuberous roots which are just enlarged, modified roots that store food. Dahlias, day lilies and sweet potatoes are prime examples.
Rhizomes are stems which grow sideways instead of upwards, running along the surface of the soil or just below it. Irises, gingers and cannas are prime examples of rhizomes.
2. Galanthus nivalis is poisonous to humans and can cause nausea, diarrhoea and vomiting if ingested in large quantities.
3. Galanthus nivalis has medicinal uses, for example it contains an alkaloid called galanthamine, which has been approved for use in the management of Alzheimer’s disease in a number of countries. Galanthamine is also used in the treatment of traumatic injuries to the nervous system. The snowdrop is also an emmenagogue, and as such it stimulates or increases menstrual flow and so can induce an abortion in the early stages of pregnancy. Snowdrop lectin (GNA; Galanthus nivalis agglutinin) is also an effective insecticide, and can be used against pests such as beetles, butterflies, moths, aphids and leafhoppers.
4. Galanthus nivalis is considered to be introduced and naturalized in northern Europe, including the British Isles. It occurs throughout Europe from the Pyrenees eastward to the Ukraine, and from Germany and Poland southwards to southern Italy, Albania and northern Greece.
5. Galanthus nivalis is rated as Near Threatened (NT) according to the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red List criteria. All snowdrops are included in CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna) Appendix II, which lists plants that are not currently under threat of extinction, but which should have their trade monitored and regulated to ensure wild populations are not endangered.
6. Galanthus nivalis is best known in literacy for appearing in the famous William Wordsworth poem “On Seeing A Tuft Of Snowdrops In A Storm”:
“When haughty expectations prostrate lie,
And grandeur crouches like a guilty thing,
Oft shall the lowly weak, till nature bring
Mature release, in fair society
Survive, and Fortune’s utmost anger try;
Like these frail snowdrops that together cling,
And nod their helmets, smitten by the wing
Of many a furious whirl-blast sweeping by.
Observe the faithful flowers! if small to great
May lead the thoughts, thus struggling used to stand
The Emathian phalanx, nobly obstinate;
And so the bright immortal Theban band,
Whom onset, fiercely urged at Jove’s command,
Might overwhelm, but could not separate!”
7. In folklore, a single Galanthus nivalis flower indicates impending death and one should never be brought into the house.
8. According to legend, Galanthus nivalis became the symbol of hope when Adam and Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden. When Eve was about to give up hope that the cold winters would never end, an angel appeared. She transformed some of the snowflakes into snowdrop flowers, proving that winter does eventually give way to spring.
9. Galanthas nivalis are known as Candlemas Bells because they usually flower on or before the 2nd February, also known as Candlemas Day (the ancient Christian festival which marks the midpoint of winter, halfway between the shortest day and the spring equinox).
10. Galanthus nivalis has gained the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit (AGM), meaning it is a plant of outstanding excellence.
Plant Names Simplified (Johnson & Smith)
RHS A-Z Encyclopedia of Garden Plants
Kew’s A-Z guide of Plants and Fungi (website)
Collins Guide to Bulbs (Patrick M. Synge)