Friday, 1 January 2010

The Wild Plants of France 3 - The snowdrop.

 French – La perce-neige. Latin Galanthus nivalis.

In 2001 a new drug, galantamine, was brought into use to relieve memory loss in Alzheimer’s patients. It is extracted from the bulbs of the snowdrop and its relatives. The Snowdrop has for some time been used as a herb in the Caucasus to aid the relief of paralysis particularly in those people struck down with poliomyelitis, the complaint which afflicted President Roosevelt. Until this very recent discovery to Western medicine, the snowdrop has not been considered to have any herbal value in the West. How many other chemical secrets lie unknown in our wild plants?

There are few plants which have not had some superstition, religious virtue or medical virtue attributed to them. In the middle ages, it was the beauty of this flower which gave it value. It flowers at the time of the feast of the Purification of the Virgin Mary, when Christ was presented to the Temple, 40 days after his birth. This is Candlemas or Chandeleur, the 2nd February. In this picture by Hans Holbein, the virgin almost resembles a snowdrop as she holds the Christ-child.
The link between the Virgin and the new beginning of the year, if you will, the cleansing away of winter; of the soul; and the snowdrop, is rooted deep in the Christian tradition. In the USA it has become translated into ‘ground-hog day’ when the prairie settlers looked for the appearance of the ground-hogs. Who amongst us does not look for the first signs of Spring and is it not the snowdrops for which we look? On Candlemas day the statue of the Virgin was taken off the altar and the space strewn with ‘candlemas-bells’ - snowdrops. The reformation killed this practice. But around many churches and monasteries the snowdrops were encouraged to grow and are still there.
In Britain the flower is probably only native in the west, yet today it may be found, usually growing near houses and churches as far north as Scotland. In these northern areas it rarely forms seeds. The bees do not pollinate and the temperature is too cold for seeds to form. It likes damp places by streams and probably in Britain it is spread by the small bulbs being carried by water. In France it is a wild plant chiefly in the west and central areas, but the floras say it is found ‘here and there’ throughout the country. This ‘ça et là’ description also suggests to me that a good deal of its distribution is again due to its beauty and its introduction by monk and man. There is a steep and stony bank in the Lot (46) where the ground is carpeted with them, and I know of another on lower ground. Here and there is an isolated group on a roadside. Why, I ask, is it not more common.? Why are they not on the banks of every damp shady ditch?
My guess is that much of the French countryside has through the centuries been denuded by overgrazing and many flowers which ought to be common have been eaten out. What might eat the snowdrop? It would most likely be an animal that might grub out the bulbs. Could it be les sangliers, the wild boar! Or the domestic pig.
The flower is relatively simple, with six ‘petals’ [the botanists call them tepals.] The inner ones are short and are not like normal petals in that each is tipped with green. The ovary develops into a capsule, and the seeds, commonly enough formed in France, each carry a small oil rich body which is attractive to ants. The ants carry the seeds away and having eaten the oil, drop the seed. Each flower stalk is borne from the bulb between two leaves and on the flower stem just below the flower is a green bract or spathe, itself formed of two fused leaflets. The ovary lies beneath (not within) the flower. That fact and the existence of the spathe places it in the family of the Amaryllidaceae.
There are two botanical mysteries:- It grows through the snow when the temperature is often below zero; how does it avoid freezing? The growth itself generates a little warmth and the leaves have hardish points. Both features help! It is conceivable that the green tips to the petals helps the flowers to resist frost. The green chlorophyll will generate sugar and that acts as an antifreeze. The green spots are also where nectar is produced and when the weather is warm enough, bees will pollinate the flowers; rarely enough in the northern areas! The second question has so far no answer. How does it remain dormant through summer and autumn and how does it know when to start growing out of its freezing bed?
If you want to grow some snowdrops, dig them up immediately after flowering and transplant them when still in green leaf. But please leave the wild ones alone.

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