Sunday, 20 February 2011

Snowdrops - not just a pretty flower - Five facts



The end of the barren winter months is heralded now by the arrival of Spring bulbs. Last weekend, the sunshine brought out the crowds to a fantastic display of over 240 Snowdrop varieties at Anglesey Abbey, part of the National Trust.

Here are my five Snowdrop facts:
  1. Snowdrop species (Latin name Galanthus) are widespread throughout Europe and Asia. They most probably entered the British Isles in the 16th  century and have become naturalised in many locations. The trade in wild snowdrop bulbs and plants is now restricted under the CITES convention, however, many different varieties are produced sustainably in the UK.
  2. Snowdrop bulbs are poisonous if eaten. One of the active ingredients is galantamine, which is used in the treatment of early Alzheimer's and vascular dementia. It acts as an 'acetylcholinesterase inhibitor'. As these are thought to be important in brain function, galantamine is also used as a “brain enhancer” in brain damaged patients. A more unusual application, is its use to get “Lucid Dreams”  or to help with “Out of Body Experiences”. I do not recommend trying it for either as the most likely experience will be your last dinner having a violent out of body experience back through your mouth!
  3. Plants are brilliant chemical weapons specialists in their constant battle to avoid being eaten. Snowdrops produce Snowdrop lectin (also known as GNA = Galanthus nivalis agglutinin) which acts as an anti-feedant on insect pests. There is current research on introducing GNA into other plants in the hope that they will be more resistant to insects.
  4. Snowdrops can come in varieties with a single flower and with double flowers. This does not mean two flowers, but twice the amount of petals (or more) in a single flower. This is best seen when you photograph the hanging flower from below (see slideshow). Usually Snowdrops have 3 large petals with three smaller petals in-between - these are the ones with the green marking. Inside the flower, you then have a circle of stamens (the male parts) and at the centre, the ovary (female part). In double flowers, the parts that would normally be stamens are present as smaller petals instead. Check it out in the photos; single flowers have stamens, double flowers do not!
  5. We delight in seeing these early flowers. For them, it is a lifestyle to their advantage. By storing nutrients in a bulb the previous year, they can shoot up leaves and flower well before grasses swamp them or before the leaves of the trees above them cut out the vital sunshine. There is also less competition in attracting insects that are vital for pollination. Kew Gardens have monitored the first appearance of Snowdrops over many years. In the 1950s, they used to emerge at the end of February, since the 1990s, they have appeared in January, another indication of the UK's changing climate.
The Snowdrop; adaptable, medically important, a chemical weapons master and an early indicator of climate change. Not just a pretty flower then!



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