Plant 117

Galanthus nivalis L. (Amaryllidaceae)



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