It is widely accepted now that Snowdrops are not a native British species… but then again so many of us are not truly native, whatever that is, so should we hold that against the Snowdrop and not include them in the list? I think not.
They are described as ‘naturalised’ meaning that they have become part of the British countryside, growing alongside other wild flowers without any help or input from man.
However it is rare to find them growing any distance away from a house or the former site of a building as shown in the above photograph. These are growing down a slope from a large house situated just on the outskirts of Llandogo in the Wye valley. I have read that the first areas where they became naturalised were Gloucestershire and Worcestershire, though at what point a plant changes it’s status from an escapee to becoming naturalised I do not know.
One place I have seen them growing which is a long way from any habitation or former site of habitation is along the banks of the river Wye, particularly north of Monmouth. They are always to be found growing very close to the waters edge. I suspect that bulbs get washed out of the ground from areas upstream when the river is in flood, possibly from the gardens of houses that border the river and then get washed downstream and become deposited on the bank as the river level drops, subsequently they get established and thus the little groups of them in this location.
There are many different species of Snowdrop, but the one we have is called Galanthus nivalis The name was created by Linnaeus – gala is milk anthos is flower and nivalis refers to snow as in neige in French. So it is a milk coloured flower which blooms when there is snow…. sounds sensible to me.
As I said there are many species and these mostly come from the Middle East. Galanthus nivalis is the most widespread, being found not only in the Middle East but right across Europe into France, Belgium and Holland. Recently some of the species classifications have been challenged with advances in genetics and DNA fingerprinting. Also there are many ‘garden cultivars’ – man can’t resist trying to improve on nature. So we have double versions, strains in which the green colour on the petals is missing or has been substituted with yellow – in fact man has produced over 500 different cultivars….Why? If you look at the photo below, these snowdrops look a bit different to the ones above. They are full and rounder. Theses are growing on a bank beside a road going from Bigsweir up towards Clearwell. They are not far from a couple of houses.
Returning briefly to the flower structure I referred to petals but actually they are strictly called tepals as the flowers do not have separate sepals and petals, but a sort of all in one version which does the job of both sepals ( protecting the flower whilst in bud) and petals (looking pretty and attracting insects). It has three outer tepals, the longer white concave ones and three inner tepals which are shorter, form a little tube and have the green markings on.
Snowdrops are the first wild/naturalised woodland flowers to bloom in spring although Aconites also flower at around the same time. Snowdrops might have been introduced by the Romans but it is more likely that they were introduced in the 16th century. They spread largely by increasing the number of bulbs in the ground and not by seeds, quite a slow process but one that does result in dense colonies of them.
There is a National Trust website where you can look up places to see spectacular displays of Snowdrops in your area.
Click to see other flowers from the Wye valley woodlands