When I’m unable to visit the boat, or explore a local towpath, I try to take a few minutes time-out each day to walk around my school’s wildlife garden.
Spurred on by London’s unseasonable sunshine and mild temperatures the Common Snowdrop Galanthus nivalis are appearing beneath the trees. Oft-stated to be a herald of Spring and first flower of our year, the Fair Maid of February, Snow Piercer, Dingle-dangle or Flower of Hope is rising from the drenched ground. It’s the same along the Cut, the merest hint of extended light and the resilient bulbs send shoots into the air.
Galanthus nivalis was described by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in his Species Plantarum in 1753. Galanthus (Greek gála “milk”, ánthos “flower”) signifies milk-white flowers whilst Nivalis is a Latin adjective meaning snowy.
This narrow-leaved snowdrop, with its delicate white hanging flowers, is now a familiar sight across the British Isles despite not being a native having, in all likelihood, originated with ecclesiastical/monastic plantings and introduced from Italy. It is a native of Switzerland, Austria and of Southern Europe generally, but where naturalized can spread into considerable masses generally growing in shady, damp pastures, woods and orchards; it’s vegetative spread may also have been helped by the action of rivers and streams ferrying the bulbs by to new locations..
The bulbs grow in compact masses. Each sends up a one-flowered stem. The points of the leaves protecting the flower-head are thickened and toughened at the tips, enabling them to push through the soil. This simple device shows on the mature leaf like a delicate nail on a green finger.
Most Snowdrops flower in winter before the vernal equinox (20 or 21 March in the Northern Hemisphere). The white flowers remain open a long time; the bud is erect, but the open flowers pendulous and adapted to bees.
An old glossary of 1465, referring to it as Leucis i viola alba and classes it as an emmenagogue (see below), and elsewhere, placed under the narcissi, its healing properties are stated to be ‘digestive, resolutive and consolidante’.
The common snowdrop also has modern medicinal uses, for example it contains an alkaloid, galanthamine, which has been approved for use in the management of Alzheimer’s disease in a number of countries. Galanthamine is also used in the treatment of traumatic injuries to the nervous system. Galanthus nivalis is also an emmenagogue, and as such it stimulates or increases menstrual flow and so can induce an abortion in the early stages of pregnancy. Snowdrop lectin (GNA; Galanthus nivalis agglutinin) is also being studied with regard to its potential activity against HIV (human immunodeficiency virus). That said, snowdrops and their bulbs are poisonous to humans and can cause nausea, diarrhoea and vomiting if eaten in large quantities.
The flowers of the snowdrop are regarded by some as being unlucky if brought into the house, and even regarded as death-tokens. In contrast others believed that the flowers were a symbol of purity and snowdrop flowers in an envelope were used to warn off would be suiters…