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Plant 117


Galanthus nivalis L. (Amaryllidaceae)

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Snowdrop




Snowdrops are one of the earliest flowering garden plants, and are often treated as heralds of spring, despite some species flowering in the late autumn. The Swedish botanist Carolus Linnaeus derived the generic name Galanthus from the Greek meaning milk-white flower. Snowdrops are sometimes confused with the snowflakes (Leucojum). However, snowflakes are usually larger, flower later and have different flower structures to snowdrops.

The genus Galanthus comprises 20 species distributed from Europe through the Caucasus to Turkey and Iran. The genus has attracted the attention of British gardeners for hundreds of years, and today is the most widely traded group of wild-sourced bulbs in the world. 'Galanthophiles' have a particular enthusiasm for this genus, and there are many gardens, open to the public, across the United Kingdom which have large snowdrop collections.

Today, all members of the genus are protected under international trade legislation (CITES) but the species remain threatened in their native ranges by the horticulture trade and through habitat loss. Notoriously, one of the few populations of the latest Galanthus species to be described, Galanthus panjutinii, was destroyed when preparations were made for the 2014 Winter Olympics in Russia.

Galanthus nivalis is the most widespread species in the genus, extending from the woodlands of Spain in the west to those of the Ukraine and western Turkey in the east. Galanthus nivalis was introduced to the United Kingdom before 1600, and grown in the Oxford Botanic Garden as early as 1648. The species is now extensively naturalised across Europe including the United Kingdom. The epithet means 'of the snow', a reference to its flowering early in the year. The pendulous, white flowers have three outer segments and three, smaller inner segments. The inner segments have a notch, usually surrounded by green markings. Hybrids and hundreds of cultivars have been described which often differ in subtle characteristics including size, shape and the markings of the flower, together with flowering period.

Two chemicals from the genus have attracted attention over the past few decades. The alkaloid galantamine, an acetylcholinesterase inhibitor extracted from the bulbs, has been reported as helpful in the treatment of Alzheimer's disease. A carbohydrate-binding protein, isolated from Galanthus nivalis, was incorporated into a genetically-modified potato in the mid-1990s, which was then fed to laboratory rats. Subsequent interpretation of these data produced great confusion in the debate over the safety of foods derived from genetically-modified organisms, especially in Europe.

Further reading

Bishop M et al. 2002. Snowdrops: a monograph of cultivated Galanthus. Griffin Press.

Davies A 1999. The genus Galanthus. A botanical magazine monograph. Timber Press.

Roensted N et al. 2013. Snowdrops falling slowly into place: an improved phylogeny for Galanthus (Amaryllidaceae). Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution 69: 205-217.


Stephen Harris


The 25th July 2021 marks 400 years of botanical research and teaching by the University of Oxford.

As a celebration and count-down to this anniversary, the University of Oxford Botanic Garden and Harcourt Arboretum, together with the Oxford University Herbaria and the Department of Plant Sciences, will highlight 400 plants of scientific and cultural significance. One plant will be profiled weekly, and illustrated with images from Oxford University's living and preserved collections.


  • Plant 116: Eranthis hyemalis
  • Plant 115: Thunbergia mysorensis
  • Plant 114: Eichhornia crassipes
  • Plant 113: Phyllanthus montanus
  • Plant 112: Echinocactus grusonii
  • Plant 111: Agave tequilana
  • Plant 110: Juniperus communis
  • Plant 109: Ilex aquifolium
  • Plant 108: Arabidopsis thaliana
  • Plant 107: Hedera helix
  • Plant 106: Onopordum acanthium
  • Plant 105: Halesia carolina
  • Plant 104: Magnolia campbellii
  • Plant 103: Ginkgo biloba
  • Plant 102: Decaisnea insignis
  • Plant 101: Aglaia odorata
  • Plant 100: Hovenia dulcis
  • Plant 99: Smilax asper
  • Plant 98: Aster species
  • Plant 97: Hylocereus undatus
  • Plant 96: Cercidiphyllum japonicum
  • Plant 95: Nicotiana tabacum
  • Plant 94: Atropa belladonna
  • Plant 93: Solanum lycopersicum
  • Plant 92: Zea mays
  • Plant 91: Dionaea muscipula
  • Plant 90: Eryngium sp.
  • Plant 89: Mimosa pudica
  • Plant 88: Pinus nigra
  • Plant 87: Catharanthus roseus
  • Plant 86: Lantana camara
  • Plant 85: Stipa gigantea
  • Plant 84: Gunnera manicata
  • Plant 83: Rosa chinensis
  • Plant 82: Aconitum napellus
  • Plant 81: Pteridium aquilinum
  • Plant 80: Wisteria sinensis
  • Plant 79: Passiflora alata
  • Plant 78: Matteuccia struthiopteris
  • Plant 77: Acer carpinifolium
  • Plant 76: Vicia faba
  • Plant 75: Calycanthus floridus
  • Plant 74: Primula auricula
  • Plant 73: Strongylodon macrobotrys
  • Plant 72: Capsella bursa-pastoris
  • Plant 71: Barnadesia caryophylla
  • Plant 70: Erythronium dens-canis
  • Plant 69: Trifolium dubium
  • Plant 68: Forsythia spp.
  • Plant 67: Ananas comosus
  • Plant 66: Theobroma cacao
  • Plant 65: Nostoc sp.
  • Plant 64: Sciadopitys verticillata
  • Plant 63: Garrya elliptica
  • Plant 62: Psilotum nudum
  • Plant 61: Cyclamen species
  • Plant 60: Hevea brasiliensis
  • Plant 59: Semele androgyna
  • Plant 58: Monstera deliciosa
  • Plant 57: Musa textilis
  • Plant 56: Piper nigrum
  • Plant 55: Viscum album
  • Plant 54: Dieffenbachia seguine
  • Plant 53: Salvinia molesta
  • Plant 52: Saccharum officinarum
  • Plant 51: Metasequoia glyptostroboides
  • Plant 50: Equisetum sp.
  • Plant 49: Fraxinus excelsior
  • Plant 48: Rosmarinus officinalis
  • Plant 47: Ptelea trifoliata
  • Plant 46: Acer saccharum
  • Plant 45: Brassica oleracea
  • Plant 44: Helianthus annuus
  • Plant 43: Ricinus communis
  • Plant 42: Simmondsia chinensis
  • Plant 41: Chara sp.
  • Plant 40: Zingiber officinale
  • Plant 39: Aristolochia clematitis
  • Plant 38: Allium cepa
  • Plant 37: Galium tricornutum
  • Plant 36: Artemisia annua
  • Plant 35: Rosa canina
  • Plant 34: Nepenthes rajah
  • Plant 33: D. caryophyllus x barbatus
  • Plant 32: Taraxacum sp.
  • Plant 31: Victoria cruziana
  • Plant 30: Lathyrus odoratus
  • Plant 29: Heliconia rostrata
  • Plant 28: Senecio squalidus
  • Plant 27: Paulownia tomentosa
  • Plant 26: Urtica dioica
  • Plant 25: Euphorbia characias
  • Plant 24: Heliamphora nutans
  • Plant 23: Laurus nobilis
  • Plant 22: Tulipa sylvestris
  • Plant 21: Pleurococcus sp.
  • Plant 20: Gleditsia triacanthos
  • Plant 19: Tillandsia usneoides
  • Plant 18: Marchantia polymorpha
  • Plant 17: Daphne mezereum
  • Plant 16: Citrus medica
  • Plant 15: Coffea arabica
  • Plant 14: Gossypium species
  • Plant 13: Stachyurus praecox
  • Plant 12: Encephalartos ferox
  • Plant 11: Aloe vera
  • Plant 10: Araucaria angustifolia
  • Plant 9: Isoetes echinospora
  • Plant 8: Hamamelis virginiana
  • Plant 7: Lithops species
  • Plant 6: Sequoiadendron giganteum
  • Plant 5: Commiphora saxicola
  • Plant 4: Buxus sempervirens
  • Plant 3: Picea abies
  • Plant 2: Cinnamomum verum
  • Plant 1: Taxus baccata



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    The specimens at the Oxford herbaria and the living collections of the Oxford Botanic Garden and Oxford University Herbaria are being digitized using BRAHMS.



    Contacts

    Dr Stephen Harris (stephen.harris@plants.ox.ac.uk)

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