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SNOWDROP – Galanthus nivalis

Flowering : (January) February to March

Snowdrops are iconic flowers that traditionally herald the ending of winter and are the first bulbs to bloom and to show signs of life after the winter months. In Britain, Snowdrops are possibly both native and naturalised and were not recorded as growing wild here until the 1770s. It is likely that many of our colonies of wild Snowdrops originated with ecclesiastical plantings. The pure white blooms of the Snowdrop have long been accepted by the Catholic Church as a symbol of Candlemas, celebrated on February 2nd, the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary, and their association with monastic sites is apparent right across Britain.

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Common English name: Snowdrop Scientific name: Galanthus nivalis L. Welsh:Eirlys

Other common names: Candlemas bells, Mary’s taper, Snow-piercer, February fairmaids, Dingle-dangle

Description: Height 15-25cm (6-10″). Strap-shaped bluish-green leaves grow at the base of each stem, which bears a single drooping blossom. The flower has three spreading sepals that grow longer than the its green-tipped petals.

Conservation status: Rated as Near Threatened (NT) according to IUCN Red List criteria.

Habitat: On the European continent Snowdrops grow in wild habitats, in damp woods and meadows up to 1,600 metres.130216-chirk-castle-2

One of the local names for the snowdrop is the ‘snow piercer’ and this describes exactly how the flower pushes its head up through the snow or winter-hardened earth to brighten otherwise gloomy February woodlands.

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A small leaf-like spathe, or protective sheath, covers the tip of the flowering stem and enables the snowdrop flower to force its way up through the snow.

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FOLKLORE

130216-chirk-castleAlthough the flowers are sanctified for Candlemas, the snowdrop is one of the many white blossoms that are still regarded as being unlucky if brought into the house. In parts of Northumberland, Westmorland and Hampshire, single flowers particularly are still viewed as ‘death-tokens’. This may be as one Victorian explanation was that the flower “looked for all the world like a corpse in its shroud”. According to the ‘language of the flowers’, the snowdrop was an emblem for virginity, and a few blooms enclosed in an envelope were often used to warn off over-ardent wooers. In a similar vein, in Yorkshire there was an old custom, again celebrated on Candlemas, for village maidens to gather bunches of snowdrops and wear them as symbols of purity. (extracts from Flora Britannica, Richard Mabey)

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RELATIONSHIP WITH INSECTS

130216-chirk-castle-7The snowdrop provides an early source of nectar for bees, which in turn pollinate the flowers. Nectar is secreted by the green-spotted inner petals of the snowdrop and as the bee forages, it brushes onto the female stigma some of the pollen that has stuck to its body whilst visiting other flowers.

TRADITIONAL USES

Ornamental. Medicinal. Insecticide.

MEDICINAL USES

The alkaloid Galantamine, which was initially isolated from snowdrops, has been used in treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, neuritis and neuralgia. In parts of eastern Europe, rubbing snowdrops on the forehead was a folk remedy used for pain relief.

Known hazards: Snowdrops and their bulbs are poisonous to humans and can cause nausea, diarrhoea and vomiting if eaten in large quantities.

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