Snowdrops; Galanthus nivalis
Snowdrops are described as ‘naturalised’ meaning that they are not native British plants but 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. 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 is difficult to say.
One place where 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 float downstream to be deposited on the bank as the river level drops. Subsequently they get established and thus little groups of them can be found in these locations.
There are many different species of Snowdrop, but the one we have in Britain is called Galanthus nivalis The name was created by Linnaeus – gala means milk, anthos means 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 previously mentioned, there are many species and they 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. There are also many ‘garden cultivars’ – man can not resist trying to improve upon nature so we have double versions and 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 and one has to wonder why! In the photograph shown below, the snowdrops look a bit different to the ones shown in the previous photograph. They are fuller and rounder. These are growing on a bank beside a road leading from Bigsweir up towards Clearwell and 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 (or naturalised) woodland flowers to bloom in spring although Aconites also flower at about 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. This is quite a slow process but one that does result in dense colonies forming.
There is a National Trust website which gives details of where to see spectacular displays of Snowdrops.