Snowdrops: late arrivals and an aid against Alzheimers

Usually, you hear about mild winters leading to early flowers. But many flowers, including snowdrops, need a certain amount of cold before they’ll flower. It’s called a vernalisation requirement.

These snowdrop doubles are growing on a trail in the forest. Snowdrops are widely naturalised throughout the UK, but they're not considered "native".
These snowdrop doubles are growing on a trail in the forest nearby. Snowdrops are widely naturalised throughout the UK, but they’re not considered “native”.

In this corner of north Wales, the winter has been so mild that the snowdrops in my garden haven’t even flowered yet. Up until now, we haven’t had a “proper” frost this winter – just the lightest touch; not even enough to stop the nasturtiums from growing. Consequently, the snowdrops haven’t had their dose of cold and are not ready to flower. In previous years, they have flowered as early as Boxing Day. An alternative name for snowdrops is Candlemas Lilies and Candlemas is on the 2nd of February. So, although their flowers seem late to me, my snowdrops are probably actually quite close to their traditional flowering time.

The science behind how plants measure temperature and keep track of the coldness they’ve felt is quite amazing and the subject of much research.

Snowdrops are steeped deeply in folklore. They are thought to be both a symbol of eternal hope and of bad luck; a sign of purity and of impending doom. Mainly, it seems they’re lucky if you leave them growing, but will bring bad luck if you pick them, and more especially if you pick them and bring them into your home.

Snowdrops have attracted much scientific interest because one of their active components, galantamine (named from the Latin name for snowdrop family – Galanthus ), seems to be able to slow the progress of Alzheimer’s disease. Galantamine is also found in other bulbs related to snowdrops. In Wales, daffodils are being cultivated to produce galantamine.

Traditionally people have said to propagate snowdrops by division whilst they are still flowering. However, these days it is more usual (and better for the plants) to divide them when they are dormant. The habit of dividing them whilst the flowers were still visible was linked to the value that people placed on the various snowdrop cultivars (of which there are more than 500!): as these are identified mainly by the patterns on their flowers, having the flowers visible ensured purchasers were receiving the type of snowdrop they sought.

You can also grow snowdrops quite easily from seed, but, if you are after a particular flowering pattern it’s unlikely to come true from seed.

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