The Snowdrop

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Snowdrops are one of the earliest flowering garden bulbs and are often celebrated as the herald of spring or the end of winter. The common snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis was described by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in 1753.

The name Galanthus comes from the Greek for milk-white flowers and nivalis from the Latin, meaning “of the snow” in reference to its early flowering.

Image: A pressed herbarium specimen of the snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) from the Ulster Museum’s collection (accession number BELUM.H60840). The specimen was collected on the 6th of March, 1932 by Rev. Frederick Hugh Woodhams Kerr the curate-in-charge at Arboe, Co Tyrone from the rectory orchard.
A pressed herbarium specimen of the snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) from the Ulster Museum’s collection (accession number BELUM.H60840). The specimen was collected on the 6th of March, 1932 by Rev. Frederick Hugh Woodhams Kerr the curate-in-charge at Arboe, Co Tyrone from the rectory orchard.

The teardrop-shaped pendulous flowers have six petal-like tepals consisting of three outer tepals and three inner tepals which are smaller with a notch at the tip. Above the notch there is a green inverted ‘V’. The snowdrop produces a fleshy fruit which contains a compound that is attractive to ants which then disperse the seeds. It is one of the most popular of all cultivated bulbs and images of the snowdrop emerging through snow are often used as a symbol of spring, hope and purity. In Walter de La Mare’s poem ‘The Snowdrop’ (1929), the three petals in each whorl symbolize the Holy Trinity.

The common snowdrop is a woodland species that is found throughout Europe from Spain in the west to Turkey in the east. It was introduced to northern Europe including the United Kingdom and Ireland and has become naturalized in some areas.

In Northern Ireland, carpets of white snowdrops can be found at several sites, including The Argory, Co Armagh, Castleward, Co Down and Castle Coole, Co Fermanagh (all National Trust properties).

Whilst February is normally considered the best month in which to see snowdrops, spring is now arriving earlier than ever in the northern hemisphere and, in 2019, snowdrops in Northern Ireland have been seen flowering from early January.

Image: Snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) flowering in early January 2019 in Holywood, Co Down.
Snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) flowering in early January 2019 in Holywood, Co Down.

The bulb of the common snowdrop contains the alkaloid Galantamine, which has been approved for the treatment of Alzheimer’s disease.