Class: Equisetopsida; Subclass: Magnoliidae; Superorder: Lilianae; Order: Asparagales; Family: Amaryllidaceae; Genus: Galanthus
Galanthus is derived from the Greek, signifying Milkflower, whilst Nivalis is a Latin adjective, referencing the botanical’s appearance to snow. Synonyms include: Common snowdrop; Fair Maiden of February; Bulbous violet; Flower of Hope (English); galantine d’hiver, perce-neige (French); bucaneve (Italian); hovirag (Hungarian)
Native to Switzerland, Austria and Southern Europe, however has naturalised incredibly well in Britain appearing in huge clusters from late January onwards. These emergence times have changed fairly dramatically since the 1950’s, when typically plants would not open until the end of February. Known as a “cultivated bulbous plant”, Galanthus prefers to grow in deciduous woodland, near rivers, shady pastures and sometimes to be found on scrub land. It is believed that there are over 75 varieties of snowdrop, each with unique markings and shape.
Medicinal Uses, Therapeutic Benefits & Pharmacology:
Mrs. Grieves acknowledges that some herbalists, such as Gerard, do not acknowledge Galanthus as having any medicinal usage. However she expresses views to the contrary, classing it as an emmenagogue from a reference she found in a Latin text dating back to 1465. She further quotes their healing properties to reputably be “ ‘digestive, resolutive and consolidante.' ”
The use of Galanthus has shown to increase the flow of menstrual blood, and can thus was once used to induce an abortion if in the early stages of pregnancy.
Snowdrop bulbs contain the alkaloid Galantamine. Galantamine has garnered much attention in the popular press in recent years. The reason being that it has shown to be beneficial in the management of Alzheimer's and Dementia.
A person suffering with Alzheimer’s will typically show low levels of acetylcholine, an essential chemical found in the brain involved in the transmission of messages between nerve cells. Galantamine has been shown to increase levels of acetylcholine and is therefore used as the basis for drugs such as Reminyl, which either halt or delay the rate of decline of memory function in patients.
Dr Melanie-Jayne Howes of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, has said: ‘Galantamine was originally tested for use in conditions such as eye, gastric and heart disorders. It wasn’t until the Eighties that it was explored for potential benefits in dementia,’ A trait for which some folk were already aware of. People in the Caucasus Mountains reportedly ate the bulbs in order to maintain the strength of their memories and brain function.
Much of the folklore surrounding snowdrops is focused on the issue of picking them and bringing them indoors. Traditionally in many areas of the British Isles this is considered a heralding of death, bringing bad luck upon the home. It was also believed to turn the milk sour and the eggs bad. It is thought that snowdrops were introduced into this country by the monasteries, fuelling a connection between the flowers and burial. However it is worth noting that the popularity of this folklore peaked in the nineteenth century, when the Victorians used snowdrops to populate and decorate graveyards and graves.
To illustrate the extent of the superstition:
"It is unlucky to decorate your rooms with snowdrops.
The snowdrop always blossoms on Candlemas Day
The snowdrop will ensure purity of thought to the wearer
If a girl eats the first snowdrop she finds in the spring, she will not get tanned in the summer.
Snowdrops are so much like a corpse in a shroud that in some countries the people will not have them in the house, lest they bring in death.”
"Encyclopedia of Superstitions, Folklore, and the Occult Sciences of the World." 1903
Conversely a more level and uplifting way of looking at the snowdrop was adopted in areas such as Herefordshire and Shropshire. There they believed that carrying snowdrops into the house could be part of a cleansing ritual, called the “white purification”. They were thought to herald longer, warmer days and were a sign that winter was drawing to a close.
The Romanians also have a myth of how the the snowdrops came about. A Hero dies in battle after rescuing a beautiful girl and thus saving the world from an eternal winter. It is from his blood that snowdrops sprung up. In Romania it is still custom Martisor Festival for women to receive charms of white and red thread entwined, and it is also tied to the flowers themselves. And although some Victorians were weary of the snowdrop, Scottish poet George Wilson was not one of them. From his poem “Origin of the Snowdrop”: