... these frail snowdrops that together cling,
And nod their helmets, smitten by the wing
Of many a furious whirl-blast sweeping by...
– On Seeing a Tuft of Snowdrops in a Storm by William Wordsworth
The snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) is one of the most eagerly-awaited flowers, heralding the end of the British wintertime. Although they used to be 'February's flower', climate change means that they are now flowering as early as January. Even so, they were still considered to be the first flower of spring, symbolising purity and the cleansing of the earth after winter.
It is an early-flowering bulb plant of the daffodil family, which grows in damp regions of Europe and southwest Asia; and it is widely cultivated in gardens. Snowdrops will grow on any soil type, but prefer rich, moist soils.
The snowdrop grows from a small bulb, producing slender leaves about six inches long, and flower stalks ending in a solitary white flower with three spreading outer petals which are larger and more convex than the three inner ones. The flower is milky-white, as indicated by its scientific name, Galanthus (Greek, gala = milk, anthos = flower). There are green markings on the inner petals, which experts are able to use as a means of identification. These are said to glow in ultraviolet light and thus attract pollinators such as queen bumblebees, to whom ultraviolet light is visible. Once the temperature reaches 10oC, the outer petals open to be horizontal, thus attracting pollinating insects. Some cultivated forms, such as Flore Pleno, have double flowers. These are sterile, so will not spread from seed. However, an advantage of this is that the flowers last an extra long time. They can be propagated perfectly well from offsets. Snowdrops always look particularly attractive when growing in grass or under trees.
There appears to be some uncertainty as to whether snowdrops are native to Britain or not. They certainly grow freely in the wild; but also, all 'wild' snowdrops seem to be garden escapees. Indeed, if you find snowdrops growing wild in the middle of a wood, you can be almost certain that there was once a dwelling there. Snowdrops are generally spread by birds scratching the soil, incidentally dispersing the bulbs.
There appears to be no record of snowdrops growing wild in Britain before 1770, and the first garden reference is in Gerard's Herbal of 1597. It is thought that monks may have brought snowdrops to Britain from Italy in the 15th Century, as the flowers are frequently found in the gardens of old monasteries.
The United Kingdom's National Collection of Galanthus forms part of The National Council for the Conservation of Plants and Gardens (NCCPG) which is at the Royal Horticultural Society's gardens at Wisley. There are more than 350 different species and cultivars, although the differences are likely to be measured in minute markings within the flower. Galanthus nivalis is the most common self-naturalising type, and there are many varieties which enable an extended flowering period from January to March. People who seriously collect snowdrops are known as galantophiles.
The snowdrop, in purest white arraie, First rears her hedde on Candlemas daie1.
- From an early church calendar of English flowers, c. 1500.
The snowdrop has various common names, such as Fair Maids of February, Candlemas Bells and Mary's Tapers.
Snowdrops make up the genus Galanthus of the family Amaryllidaceae. Plants of this family found in the British Isles include Narcissus pseudo-narcissus (wild daffodil), the yellow daffodil, and Galanthus nivalis, the common snowdrop. The giant snowdrop of the eastern Mediterranean is classified as Galanthus elwesii.
Snowdrops will grow in most garden soils, but benefit if some compost or leaf mould is mixed in.
Snowdrops grow best in light shade. The bulbs should be planted in early autumn, and they tend to look their best when planted in clumps of eight to ten, spaced two to four inches apart. They should be covered with two to three inches of soil, containing plenty of grit to aid drainage, and are best not fertilised. Once planted, snowdrops may be left undisturbed for years.
The bulbs may be dug up and divided soon after flowering but, as there is only a thin layer of tissue around each bulb, must then be replanted immediately so that they do not dry out. As the bulbs are relatively inexpensive2, however, most gardeners simply buy new ones. Probably the most successful way to buy snowdrops is 'in the green' - that is, after they have flowered and with their leaves on. At this stage, the roots are most firmly attached. For unknown reasons, the snowdrop maintains root growth almost all year round and, therefore, bulbs dug up in what appears to be a dormant period can suffer catastrophic root haemorrhage. In the wild, squirrels, voles, moles and even worms are all capable of spreading bulbs.
Snowdrops can also be started from seeds. Some sources say that the plants often spread by casting their own seeds, whereas others say that 'growing snowdrops from seed is a very slow job!' Seedlings take three to four years to flower. It is said that bees are an important factor in setting the seed, and a hive set near a large planting of snowdrops does much to facilitate spreading.
Having a surprisingly strong, honeyed fragrance, which is drawn out by the heat of a room, snowdrops are good as a cut flower if they are cut with a longish stalk. They also grow well in pots, especially small terracotta ones. Plant a small clump in each pot using a general-purpose potting compost and keep them in a cool corner, bringing them into the sun in the New Year. Although you can use these as houseplants, they will last longer if kept outside in the cool.
Every three or four years they should be taking out of the pot, divided into, say, three clumps and repotted into fresh compost. The plants should be kept watered from October through to June.
Snowdrops in Folklore
According to legend snowdrops first appeared when Adam and Eve were driven out of the Garden of Eden, after the Fall of Man, to a land where it was winter: cold, snowy, dark and barren. An angel consoled them by promising that, even here, spring would follow winter. As a token, he blew upon some falling snowflakes which, as they touched the ground, were transformed into snowdrops. In this way, Hope was born. Ever since then, snowdrops have appeared during the bleakest winter weeks as a sign of the better times to come.
Because of their presence in monastery churchyards, snowdrops share with other white flowers a folklore that foretells ill-luck if brought into the house. Richard Mabey, in his Flora Britannica (1996), records that in some parts of the country single flowers especially are viewed as death-tokens. Even today, many country people will not take snowdrops indoors, and the sight of a single snowdrop blooming in the garden is taken as a sign of an impending disaster.
In folklore, the snowdrop is meant to represent 'the passing of sorrow'.
In the West of England, it is believed that snowdrops cannot be brought into a house before the first chickens are hatched, or else all the eggs will be addled.
Snowdrops, along with carnations, are also the 'birth flower' for those born in January.
Use of Snowdrops in Medicine
Galantamine, marketed under the brand name of 'Reminyl', is a medicine used today for the treatment of Alzheimer's disease. It is in a class of medications called acetylcholinesterase inhibitors (ACEs), and works partly by increasing the amount of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine 3, which is typically deficient in Alzheimer's disease. However, unlike other treatments, galantamine also has a modulating effect on the brain's nicotinic receptors, increasing their effectiveness. Nicotinic receptors are thought to play a key role in attention, memory and learning.
Galantamine occurs naturally in several members of the amaryllis family (Amaryllidaceae). The alkaloid4 was first isolated from snowdrop (Galanthus spp, most notably G. woronowii). The idea for developing a drug from these species seems to have derived from the long-standing local use of them in a remote part of Europe. Apparently, during the 1950s a Bulgarian pharmacologist noticed people rubbing their foreheads with snowdrops (probably the leaves or the bulbs, as it's these and not the flowers, which contain galantamine) to ease pain.
This led to the publication in 1951 of a paper by two Russians, who gave the first pharmacological description of galantamine. They showed that galantamine acts as an acetylcholinesterase inhibitor, ie, a molecule that helps maintain normal levels of the neurotransmitter acetylcholine in the brain, by inhibiting the action of the enzyme that attacks it5.
Since then, galantamine has been used throughout Eastern Europe for the alleviation of neuromuscular ailments, such as neuritis and neuralgia. It also acts as a muscle stimulant and, for example, it counteracts the effects of the muscle relaxant, curare. Galantamine has also been used for treating neurological conditions such as post-polio paralysis and myasthenia gravis. However, because of its effect in enhancing neurotransmission in the brain, the primary use of galantamine throughout Eastern Europe in the last half-century has been for the treatment of poliomyelitis. There is some indication that, for some time before this, peasant people had been using snowdrop bulbs to treat children suffering from poliomyelitis, who recovered without showing any signs of paralysis.
It has been postulated that there are even earlier traditional uses of snowdrops. For example, in his epic poem, The Odyssey, Homer described 'moly' and its use by Odysseus as an antidote against Circe's poisonous drugs. It has been hypothesised that 'moly' might represent the oldest recorded use of Galanthus.
In 1958 galantamine was commercialised in Bulgaria under the trade name Nivalin®, after the Latin species name for the Common Snowdrop, meaning 'of the snow'.