Snowdrops (Galanthus) are a member of the Amaryllis family, which includes daffodils (Narcissus), Agapanthus, onions and chives (Allium).
Amaryllis Hippeastrum are those big, showy flowers you can grow from a bulb on your windowsill. You can pot them or you can grow them just from the bare bulb. And that is a sight to see, with a foot-long stem and a couple of big red trumpet shaped flowers.
So this is a big family, and snowdrops are tiny members, but especially loved because they are more or less the first to emerge, even in winter.
I photographed these snowdrops today at the Botanic Gardens here in Cambridge.
Around a couple of the beds – and there are thousands of snowdrops in bloom at the Botanic Garden at the moment – are explanations and stories about snowdrops. One notice mentions that the stories are taken from A Monograph of Cultivated Galanthus (published by Bishop, Davis & Grimshaw in 2001). And the rest of this post is taken from highlights in the display notices, including how snowdrops beat icy weather.
In cold spells you will often see snowdrops collapse to the ground, only to resurrect themselves once the temperature rises.
Plant tissue is often damaged or killed by ice crystals forming in the cells during freezing. However, many plants, including snowdrops, have ‘anti-freeze’ proteins that help inhibit ice crystals forming and limit their growth, protecting the plant cells from damage.
Snowdrop leaves have specially hardened tips to help them break through frozen soil. These are essential qualities for plants that grow and flower at the end of winter.
The outer segments of snowdrops move In response to changes in temperature. When air temperatures are above 10°C, pollinating insects such as bees are likely to be flying, and the petals move upwards and outwards, opening the flower for them.
The alkaloid Galantamine, used to treat Alzheimer’s disease, was first isolated from the snowdrop Galanthus woronowii. Galantamine is also found in other members of the Amaryllis plant family (Amaryllidacede), such as Narcissus and Leucojum. Today, Galantamine is mainly produced from plants: chemical synthesis is possible, but it is difficult and expensive.