White here, white now: the medicinal power of the dainty snowdrop

Not only are the white flowers of the snowdrop a sight to behold, its bulb contains the alkaloid galantamine – approved for use in the management of Alzheimer’s disease in over 70 countries worldwide, including the UK.

Extract of snowdrop was noted by the ancient Greeks for its powerful mind-altering effects. Historically, the first evidence for the mind-affecting properties of galantamine come from Homer’s Odyssey, where, some scholars argue, Homer describes Odysseus using the snowdrop to clear his mind of Circe’s bewitchment: ‘the root was black, while the flower was as white as milk; the gods call it Moly’.

V-shaped, green mark on the sepals of the snowdrops (image © Dr HF Oakeley)

Although this plant has been used as a traditional medicine since ancient times, it has only recently become a commercial proposition. The alkaloid galantamine was first extracted from the snowdrop in the early 1950s after a Bulgarian pharmacologist saw remote villagers rubbing their forehead with the plant leaves and bulbs. Galantamine is a competitive, reversible, acetylcholinesterase inhibitor that increases brain acetylcholine, a chemical of great importance in cerebral function.

Galantamine was first officially approved for use as a drug in Bulgaria in 1958, and it and its derivatives were approved by the US Food and Drug Administration in 2001. In the US, it is largely used as a memory improvement supplement for sufferers of Alzheimer’s disease and mild dementia. 

There are further possible medicinal uses for the snowdrop. Galantamine has been used in the treatment of traumatic injuries to the nervous system and also as an emmenagogue, which stimulates or increases menstrual flow and so can induce an abortion in the early stages of pregnancy. Lectin from snowdrops – Galanthus nivalis agglutinin (GNA) – is being studied with regard to its potential activity against HIV.

Horticulture

The snowdrop, Galanthus nivalis, was described by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778) in his book Species plantarum in 1753. Galanthus means ‘with milk-white flowers’ and Linnaeus named it nivalis, meaning ‘snowy’.

The snowdrop is a fully hardy, bulbous perennial with narrow, glaucous leaves, 5–6 cm long, and with an inverted V-shaped green mark at the tip of each inner tepal (a segment of the outer whorl in a flower that has no differentiation between petals and sepals). The flowers are honey scented and produced in winter. They grow to 10 cm high and wide.

A clump-forming, perennial bulb (image © Dr HF Oakeley)

Snowdrops are native to continental Europe, growing from the Pyrenees to Ukraine. They have been cultivated in Britain since 1598 and were first recorded growing wild in Britain in the 18th century. The snowdrop is now found growing all over the UK (although it’s rarer in Scotland). Due to commercial overharvesting and habitat loss, naturalised snowdrops are legally protected and it is against the law to collect them from the wild.

Snowdrops should be grown in humus-rich, moist, but well-drained soil that does not dry out in summer, in partial shade. Sow seeds of Galanthus nivalis as soon as they are ripe in containers in an open frame, and keep them shaded in summer; Galanthus species hybridize readily in gardens, so the seed you plant may not come true. You should lift and divide the clumps of bulbs as soon as the leaves begin to die down after flowering. Be aware that the snowdrop is prone to narcissus bulb fly and grey mould.

Sam Crosfield, gardener

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