March 2017 - Snowdrops and Spring Snowflakes


Spring Snowflake

Two of the earliest flowers to make an appearance in the year are Snowdrops, and the related Spring Snowflake (both belong to the Family Amarylidaceae). Both plants are important early sources of nectar and pollen for the bees and butterflies emerging from hibernation on warmer days, and indeed these insects are the vehicle of pollination. Both plants are resistant to frosts largely because of their bulbs, which are protected from freezing conditions by being under ground. Snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) flower during January to March with Spring Snowflakes (Leucojum vernum) being about a month behind, flowering February to April. Both plants look fairly similar at first glance; the difference is in the arrangement of the white flower 'petals' (corolla segments). Snowdrops have 2 distinct whorls of these petals, each containing three. The outer whorl contains petals which are larger and usually unmarked, whilst the inner whorl of smaller petals have green markings on their tips. Spring Snowflakes, in contrast, have 6 petals of equal length, each tipped with green.  Although snowdrops are generally considered to be native plants, it has been reported that they were first cultivated in Britain around 1597 and were first recorded as naturalised in 1778. Similarly the Spring Snowflake is native to central Europe and has become naturalised here in Britain.   

It is generally known that if eaten in large quantities, any part of the Snowdrop or related Spring Snowflake is poisonous to humans causing nausea, diarrhoea and vomiting. However, traditionally Snowdrop extracts were used in the treatment of headaches and in modern medicine there is an alkaloid compound, galanthamine, which has been approved in a number of countries for use in the management of Alzheimer's disease. Galanthamine is also used in the treatment of traumatic injuries to the nervous system. In addition, there is a lectin compound contained within these plants which is an effective insecticide. Research has suggested that this lectin could be a candidate for introduction into genetically-engineered crops, such as tobacco and tomatoes, to increase their resistance to insect pests. There are some studies that show there may also be compounds within both plants that have potential activity against the HIV virus.

Following pollination, seeds develop and as they ripen in the summer months they exude a material attractive to ants.  It is these insects which are reported to be distributors of the seeds.

Christians used to dedicate snowdrops to the Virgin Mary, and on Candlemas Day (2nd February) snowdrops were scattered on the altar in place of her image. The snowdrop is said to symbolise chastity, consolation, death, friendship in adversity, hope and purity.

Collectors of snowdrops are known as galanthophites.


Photos shown were both taken by Lin Gibson in local woods near Bawburgh.

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