Snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis)

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Flowering snowdrops
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Snowdrop fact file

Snowdrop description

KingdomPlantae
PhylumTracheophyta
ClassLiliopsida
OrderLiliales
FamilyAmaryllidaceae
GenusGalanthus (1)

The snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) is an early flowering bulbous plant; the pure white blooms are a cheering sight in late winter (4). The narrow leaves are bluish-green in colour, and the leaf-tips are hardened in order to break through frozen ground (4). The solitary white flowers hang down loosely, and are enclosed by a papery sheath in the early stages of development (5). The segments of the perianth are petal-like; the outer 3 segments are 14 to 17 millimetres in length, while the inner 3 are typically half as long, and have a green patch at the tips (2).

French
Galantine d'Hiver, Niveole, Perceneige.
Spanish
Flor de Nieve.
Size
Leaf length: 10 - 25 cm (2)
Bulb diameter: 1 cm (2)
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Snowdrop biology

This perennial plant flowers in February and March (6) and is pollinated by bees (1) (2). The snowdrop spreads mainly by division of the bulbs, and seed production is extremely poor, either because cross-pollination is rare as there are so few insects around in February, or because cultivated populations are usually sterile (4). However, some seeds are spread by ants which carry them through their underground tunnels, therefore helping with dispersal (1).

The pure white flowers have been accepted by the Christian church as symbols of Candlemas, the Feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary (2 February), and snowdrops are often typical sights in monastic grounds (4).

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Snowdrop range

Although often thought to be a native species in some areas, the snowdrop is now believed to have been introduced to Britain, and has since become naturalised. It was growing in cultivation in 1597, but it was not until 1778 that it was recorded in the wild (6).

Outside of Britain, the snowdrop is known from the Pyrenees and northern Spain eastwards to the Ukraine and as far as Russia, and southwards from Germany and Poland to southern Italy, Albania and northern Greece. Introduced populations have naturalised further north than these areas (1) (2), including in the Netherlands (1).

The snowdrop has also been introduced to Canada and the United States (1).

You can view distribution information for this species at the National Biodiversity Network Gateway.
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Snowdrop habitat

The delicate-looking snowdrop thrives in moist woodlands and other shaded areas, and is typically found in gardens, churchyards, parks, damp grassland, road verges and by watercourses (6).

This species occurs over a wide range of elevations, but the majority of populations are found below 900 metres above sea level (1).

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Snowdrop status

The snowdrop is classified as Near Threatened (NT) on the IUCN Red List (1) and is listed on Appendix II of CITES (3).

IUCN Red List species status – Near Threatened

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Snowdrop threats

Galanthus is the most heavily traded wild-collected bulb genus in the world (1). Despite this entire genus being listed on Appendix II of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), which restricts international trade (3), the snowdrop is still being harvested and traded on a local scale, posing a threat to its future survival (1).

Habitat destruction is an additional threat to the snowdrop, with climate change being likely to exacerbate this issue by contributing to the loss of suitable snowdrop micro-habitats (1).

At present, the snowdrop is classified as Near Threatened on the IUCN Red List, but due to the threats listed above, it could potentially qualify as Vulnerable in the near future. Several European countries have listed the snowdrop as Near Threatened, Vulnerable, or even Critically Endangered on their national Red Lists, including Germany, Switzerland and Bulgaria (1).

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Snowdrop conservation

Being listed under Appendix II of CITES, trade in wild specimens of the snowdrop is highly restricted. In addition, the need for harvesting wild populations has been diminished by nurseries selling stock that has been raised from selected reliable clones (1).

The snowdrop is also listed under Annex B of the EU Wildlife Trade Regulation (1) and on Annex V of the EC Habitats Directive, which means that the species is of community interest, and that collection from the wild may be subject to management measures (7).

Several protected areas throughout Europe currently cover part of the snowdrop’s range, including Massis del Montseny Nature Park in Spain, Ecrins National Park Buffer Zone in France, and Rila National Park in Bulgaria. The snowdrop is also found in several Ramsar wetland sites, including Wattenmeer and Unterer Niederrhein, Wadden Sea (1).

There may be further information about this species available via the National Biodiversity Network Gateway.
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Find out more

For more information on British plants and their conservation, see:

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Authentication

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

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Glossary

Genus
A category used in taxonomy, which is below ‘family’ and above ‘species’. A genus tends to contain species that have characteristics in common. The genus forms the first part of a ‘binomial’ Latin species name; the second part is the specific name.
Naturalised
Term used to describe a species that was originally introduced from another country, but becomes established, maintains itself and invades native populations.
Perennial
Plants that live for at least three seasons; after an initial period they produce flowers once a year.
Perianth
The outer envelope of a flower, typically comprising of an inner whorl (calyx) of sepals or floral leaves, and an inner whorl (corolla) of petals.
Pollinate
To transfer pollen grains from the stamen (male part of a flower) to the stigma (female part of a flower) of a flowering plant. This usually leads to fertilisation, the development of seeds and, eventually, a new plant.
Pollination
The transfer of pollen grains from the stamen (male part of a flower) to the stigma (female part of a flower) of a flowering plant. This usually leads to fertilisation, the development of seeds and, eventually, a new plant.
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References

  1. IUCN Red List (April, 2012)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. Clapham, A.R., Tutin, T.G. and Moore, D.M. (1987) Flora of the British Isles. 3rd Edition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
  3. CITES (April, 2012)
    http://www.cites.org/
  4. Mabey, R. (1996) Flora Britannica. Sinclair-Stevenson, London.
  5. Press, B. and Gibbons, B. (1993) Photographic Field Guide to Wild Flowers of Britain and Europe. New Holland Publishers Ltd., London.
  6. Preston, C.D., Pearman, D.A. and Dines, T.D. (2002) The New Atlas of the British and Irish Flora. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  7. EC Habitats Directive (April, 2012)
    http://www.jncc.gov.uk/page-1374
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Image credit

Flowering snowdrops  
Flowering snowdrops

© Niall Benvie / naturepl.com

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