Snowdrops are one of the very first flowers that grabbed my attention as a child.
I like my snowdrops single and wild
Aged just seven or eight, I remember clumps of them speckling a woodland floor on the farm, and over the next few years I even began to note the date on which they first flowered. The snowdrops are still there flowering their hearts out to bring in the new floral year.
Although we don’t know whose hand it was that carried the first snowdrop bulb to Britain from Europe, we do know they were being cultivated in British gardens in 1597, the same year that Shakespeare bought his largest house in Stratford-upon-Avon.
Given the growing enthusiasm for naturalists to record wild flowers from this time onward, it’s remarkable that such a prominent plant was not recorded in the wild for another 181 years.
But once the leap over the garden wall had been made, snowdrops spread quickly – probably assisted by deliberate planting – and they can now be found in nearly three quarters of all 10km squares in Britain and Ireland.
Snowdrops were once called Candlemass Bells. As a symbol of purity and light they were brought into churches on 2nd February – Candlemass Day – a Christian feast that commemorates the ritual purification of Mary forty days after the birth of Jesus. It also marks a more ancient festival celebrating the middle of winter, halfway between the shortest day and the spring equinox. Even today, churchyards are often full of snowdrops, planted to supply flowers for Candlemass.
After flowering, snowdrop stems flop down and the seed pods develop on the surface of the soil.
Each seed has a small oil and protein-rich appendage called an elastiome. When the seed pods open, these attract ants, which take them down into their nests as food for developing larvae. The seeds themselves remain untouched and, thanks to the ants, are both dispersed to new locations and conveniently planted underground.
However, most snowdrops found in the wild in Britain spread from vegetative division of the bulbs rather than by seed. This is because they originally come from a cultivated sterile clone that is unable to set seed.
Even when other fertile species and varieties are around though, seed production is poor because, unlike back in their native home countries, there are few pollinating insects around in January and February to fertilise the flowers in Britain.
But these floral superstars are well adapted to life in the cold.
Their leaves have specially hardened tips to help them break through frozen soil and their sap contains a form of antifreeze to prevent ice crystals forming. On very cold mornings, clumps will flop down as the water is 'frozen’ inside the cells, but soon perk up again once temperatures rise and the sap can flow again.
Snowdrops also contain an alkaloid, galanthamine, which is licensed for use in the management of mild and moderate cases of Alzheimer’s disease in various countries, especially Eastern Europe and Russia. It is a compound that is also obtained from the closely-related flowers daffodil and snowflake.
There are currently 20 different species of snowdrop recognised in the wild. The most recent addition to the list is Panjutin's snowdrop (Galanthus panjutinii), which was only formally described in 2012.
Snowdrops certainly capture the imagination but for some, the so-called Galanthophiles, they become an all-consuming passion, with the tiniest variation in form, shape and colour celebrated in a myriad of named forms and hybrids.
Many of these – with their double flowers, oversized petals and blotches of green or yellow – are undeniably attractive, but for me they take something of simple beauty and turn it into an exclusive and unaffordable obsession.
I like my snowdrops single and wild.
Want to know more? Then visit Plantlife’s website and if you see any snowdrops and want to help record and view seasonal events, why not submit your sighting to Nature’s Calendar.
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