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Galanthus nivalis was described by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in his Species Plantarum in 1753, and given the specific epithet nivalis, meaning snowy (Galanthus means with milk-white flowers). This narrow-leaved snowdrop, with its delicate white hanging flowers, has become very popular in cultivation and is commonly planted in gardens and parks. It is now a familiar sight even in the British Isles and northern France where it is not native.

Galanthus nivalis (common snowdrop)

[KSP]

Kew Species Profiles

General Description
Common snowdrop is one of the most popular of all cultivated bulbous plants, and its flowering is traditionally seen to herald the end of winter.

Galanthus nivalis was described by the Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in his Species Plantarum in 1753, and given the specific epithet nivalis, meaning snowy (Galanthus means with milk-white flowers). This narrow-leaved snowdrop, with its delicate white hanging flowers, has become very popular in cultivation and is commonly planted in gardens and parks. It is now a familiar sight even in the British Isles and northern France where it is not native.

Species Profile
Geography and distribution

Common snowdrop occurs throughout Europe, from the Pyrenees eastward to the Ukraine, and from Germany and Poland southwards to southern Italy, Albania and northern Greece. It is found at 100-1,400 m above sea level (although it most commonly occurs at 300-600 m). 

It is considered to be introduced and naturalised in northern Europe, including the British Isles.

Description

Overview: The bulb is more or less spherical to ovoid, 2-2.2 cm x 1.1-1.5 cm. The green scape (the leafless, flower-bearing stalk) is 7-15 cm long and bears a single erect flower bud, which later becomes pendent (hangs down).

Leaves: The leaves are applanate in vernation (are held flat against each other in bud), more or less linear and 5-15 x 0.4-0.8 cm at flowering. The leaves are smooth and semi-glaucous (dull greyish green). 

Flowers:The flowers are composed of six white perianth segments (petals and sepals which are similar in appearance), the inner three of which are smaller and have a notch in the tip, above which is a green inverted V- to inverted U-shaped mark.

Fruits and seeds: The fruit is a more or less spherical capsule, 1-1.2 cm in diameter. The pale brown seeds are about 0.4 cm long.

Threats and conservation

All snowdrops ( Galanthus spp.) are included in CITES Appendix II, which lists plants that are not currently under threat of extinction, but which should have their trade monitored and regulated to ensure wild populations are not endangered.

CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna) is an international agreement between governments across the world that aims to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. Under this convention, export quotas are set to limit the numbers of plants and bulbs leaving a country and help prevent over-harvesting. As a result of heavy restrictions, reported trade in wild specimens of G. nivalis virtually ceased in 1995, with the reported end of exports from Hungary. Most nurseries now avoid the use of bulbs collected from the wild by selling stock raised from artificial propagation of bulb offsets, scale cuttings or seeds.

Despite the restrictions on the snowdrop trade, populations in some areas remain under threat. For example, G. nivalis was once widely distributed in the East Carpathians (a mountain range arching across Central and Eastern Europe), but during the last decade its distribution has been considerably reduced. The main cause is the destruction of its primary habitat, particularly the lowland-foothill zone, due to increasing residential and recreational land-use. Galanthus nivalis is included in the List of Rare and Disappearing Species of the Ukranian Flora , listed as a species in decline in the Red Data Book of the Ukraine (1996) , and is considered to be under threat of extinction in some areas.

Conservation assessments carried out at Kew

Galanthus nivalis is being monitored as part of the IUCN Sampled Red List Index for Plants project ,  which aims to produce conservation assessments for a representative sample of the world's plant species. This information will then be used to monitor trends in extinction risk and help focus conservation efforts where they are needed most.

Find out more about this project

Uses Ornamental

Galanthus nivalis is admired for its delicate beauty; millions of plants are sold each year by the horticultural trade. It is one of the most popular of all cultivated bulbous plants and is widely enjoyed as an outdoor, early spring flower.

Snowdrop bulbs are collected on a small scale from privately-owned estates in the UK for sale to wholesalers for the horticultural market. Lifting the bulbs on a four- to five-year rotation helps ensure sustainable production.

Insecticidal

Snowdrop lectin is an effective insecticide, and can be used against pests in the orders Coleoptera (beetles), Lepidoptera (butterflies and moths) and Hemiptera (true bugs including aphids and leafhoppers). Research has suggested that snowdrop lectin could be a candidate for introduction into genetically-engineered crops, such as tobacco and tomatoes, to increase their resistance to insect pests.

Medicinal

Common snowdrop contains an alkaloid, galanthamine, which has been approved for use in the management of Alzheimer's disease in a number of countries. Galanthamine is also used in the treatment of traumatic injuries to the nervous system.  Galanthus nivalis  is also an emmenagogue, and as such it stimulates or increases menstrual flow and so can induce an abortion in the early stages of pregnancy.

Snowdrop lectin (GNA;  Galanthus nivalis  agglutinin) is being studied with regard to its potential activity against HIV (human immunodeficiency virus).

Millennium Seed Bank: Seed storage

Kew's Millennium Seed Bank Partnership aims to save plant life world wide, focusing on plants under threat and those of most use in the future. Seeds are dried, packaged and stored at a sub-zero temperature in our seed bank vault.

Collections of  Galanthus nivalis  seeds are held in Kew's Millennium Seed Bank based at Wakehurst in West Sussex.

See Kew's Seed Information Database for further information on Galanthus nivalis seeds

Cultivation

Galanthus nivalis is popular with gardeners because it is easy to grow and because a large number of cultivars and clones are available. Once planted they increase freely, producing new bulbs as offsets, and large and impressive drifts can be easily obtained after some years. Snowdrops should be planted in dappled shade, in soil that is well-drained but not completely dry in summer. If planted in grass they should be left to die back before the grass is cut.

Snowdrops can be seen growing in the Rock Garden, Conservation Area and around the Temple of Aeolus at Kew during January and February.

At Kew's sister garden, Wakehurst, there is a beautiful mass planting of Galanthus nivalis near the visitor centre.

Dried and spirit-preserved specimens of G. nivalis are held in the Herbarium, one of the behind-the-scenes areas of Kew. 

Phenology research at Kew

The plants at Kew Gardens and Wakehurst provide valuable information about our climate and so provide an early warning of the effects of climate change. For example, staff at Kew study the changes in plant life-cycles over time (called phenology). Each year, scientists monitor and record the flowering dates of a hundred native and exotic plants at Kew Gardens.

Recent signs of change include a shift in the average flowering date of the common snowdrop ( Galanthus nivalis ). In the 1950s the flowers commonly opened around the end of February, but over the decades flowers have gradually appeared earlier, such that since the 1990s the flowers have opened in January.

Ecology
Mostly deciduous woodland, but occasionally coniferous woodland. Also in meadows, pasture, amongst scrub, near rivers and on stony slopes, particularly on calcareous soils.
Conservation
Near Threatened (NT) according to IUCN Red List criteria.
Hazards

Snowdrops and their bulbs are poisonous to humans and can cause nausea, diarrhoea and vomiting if eaten in large quantities.

[KSP]
Use
Ornamental, medicinal, insecticide

Native to:

Albania, Austria, Belarus, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Italy, Poland, Romania, Sicilia, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey-in-Europe, Ukraine, Yugoslavia

Introduced into:

Belgium, Great Britain, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Netherlands, New Brunswick, New Jersey, New York, Newfoundland, North Carolina, Norway, Ohio, Ontario, Pennsylvania, Sweden, Utah, Virginia, Washington

English
Common snowdrop

Galanthus nivalis L. appears in other Kew resources:

Date Reference Identified As Barcode Type Status
Aug 1, 2008 Huet, A. [1854], France K000464069
Mar 1, 1882 Grecescu, D. [s.n.], Romania K000457107
Mar 1, 1882 Grecescu, D. [s.n.], Romania K000457108
Mar 1, 1882 Grecescu, D. [s.n.], Romania K000457106
Jun 2, 1851 Coqueray, J. [s.n.], France K000457118
Jun 2, 1851 Coqueray, J. [s.n.], France K000457121
Davis, A. 70348.000
64350.000
70434.000
Marr, A.J. [136], Italy 73718.000
73303.000
Zinger, N. [s.n.], Ukraine K000457092
Favrat, L. [s.n.], Switzerland K000457097
Unverricht, C. [s.n.], Poland K000457110
s.coll. [s.n.], Austria K000457114
s.coll. [s.n.], Italy K000457115
s.coll. [s.n.], France K000457120
Durand-Duquesney [s.n.], France K000457134
Daville [s.n.], France K000457135
Hill, A.W. [2526], Greece K000457148
Hill, A.W. [2526], Greece K000457149
Pichler [s.n.], Italy K000457154
Maly [s.n.], Bosnia & Herzegovina K000457161
Margittai, A. [s.n.], Ukraine K000457103
Otruba, J. [s.n.], Czech Republic K000457102
Bornet [s.n.], France K000457119
s.coll. [s.n.], Austria K000457125
Martindale, G.E. [7], Croatia K000457157
s.coll. [s.n.], France K000457137
Thomas [s.n.], Switzerland K000457098
s.coll. [s.n.], Italy K000457116
Martindale, G.E. [7], Croatia K000457156
Cope, T.A. [RBG 23], United Kingdom K000914590
Gerard, C. [s.n.], France K000457129
Joad, G.C. [s.n.], Italy K000457277
s.coll. [s.n.], Bosnia & Herzegovina K000457162
s.coll. [s.n.], Belgium K000457111
s.coll. [s.n.], Bulgaria K000457163
s.coll. [s.n.], Austria K000457124
Pichler [s.n.], Italy K000457152
Jarris, P. [s.n.], France K000457131
Whitehead, M.J. [15], Italy K000457167
Billiet, P. [s.n.], France K000457126
Tommasini, M. [s.n.], Italy K000457153
Porta [s.n.], Italy K000457151
Meline, C. [s.n.], France K000457138
Mathew, B. [7529], Montenegro K000457155
Pennington, R.V. [3], Albania K000457164
Savostjaniv, A. [33], Ukraine K000457091
Mathew, B. [4032], Serbia K000457159
Vollmann [1433], Germany K000457095
Bouvet, G. [s.n.], France K000457139
s.coll. [s.n.], Italy K000457145
Nowak, J. [s.n.], Poland K000457166
Maillard, A. [s.n.], France K000457136
Buysson Du [s.n.], France K000457130
Billiet, P. [s.n.], France K000457127
Fiori, A. [s.n.], Italy K000457144
s.coll. [s.n.], Ukraine K000457090
Pop, I. [s.n.], Romania K000457105
Fiori, A. [s.n.], Italy K000457143
Ball, J. [s.n.], United Kingdom K000457506
s.coll. [99911], Austria K000457101
s.coll. [s.n.], France K000457123
s.coll. [564], Poland K000457094
Maly [s.n.], Bosnia & Herzegovina K000457160
s.coll. [s.n.], Switzerland K000457113
Meline, C. [s.n.], France K000457142
Dostal, J. [s.n.], Czech Republic K000457146
Feuz [17], Austria K000457099
s.coll. [s.n.], United Kingdom K000457507
Joad, G.C. [564], Poland K000457093
s.coll. [s.n.], France K000457133
Gilliat-Smith, B. [409], Bulgaria K000457165
Reverchon, E. [s.n.], France K000457128
Hepp, E. [1433], Germany K000457096
Vayreda [s.n.], Spain K000457117
Gerard, C. [s.n.], France K000457140
Marr, A.J. [75], Montenegro K000457158
s.coll. [s.n.], Austria K000457100
Jarris, P. [s.n.], France K000457141
Horton, S.V. [853], Greece K000457147
Blonski, F. [s.n.], Poland K000457109
Huet, A. [s.n.], France K000457132
Goulimy, C.N. [10], Greece K000457150
Picquet, C. [s.n.], Belgium K000457112
Volak, J. [s.n.], Czech Republic K000457104
s.coll. [s.n.], France K000457122

First published in Sp. Pl.: 288 (1753)

Accepted by

  • Diev, M.M. (2014). Galyantusy: 1-167. K.M.K., Moskva.
  • Flora of North America Editorial Committee (2002). Flora of North America North of Mexico 26: 1-723. Oxford University Press, New York, Oxford.
  • Govaerts, R. (2003). World Checklist of Seed Plants Database in ACCESS G: 1-40325.
  • Rico, E. & al. (eds.) in Castroviejo, S. & al. (eds.) (2013). Flora Iberica 20: 1-651. Real Jardín Botánico, CSIC, Madrid.
  • Tutin, T.G. & al. (eds.) (1980). Flora Europaea 5: 1-452. Cambridge University Press.

Literature

Kew Species Profiles

  • Sampled Red List Index Conservation Assessment for Galanthus nivalis. IUCN, Gland, Switzerland.
  • Bishop, M., Davis, A. P. & Grimshaw, J. (2006). Snowdrops: A Monograph of Cultivated Galanthus. Griffin Press, Cheltenham.
  • Davis, A. P. (1999). The Genus Galanthus. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew in association with Timber Press, Oregon.
  • Heinrich, M. & Teoh, H. L. (2004). Galanthamine from snowdrop – the development of a modern drug against Alzheimer’s disease from local Caucasian knowledge. J. Ethnopharmacol. 92: 147-162.
  • Sanderson, H. & Prendergast, H. D. V. (2002). Commercial uses of wild and traditionally managed plants in England and Scotland. Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Kew Backbone Distributions

  • Flora of North America Editorial Committee (2002). Flora of North America North of Mexico 26: 1-723. Oxford University Press, New York, Oxford.

Herbarium Catalogue Specimens
Digital Image © Board of Trustees, RBG Kew http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/

Kew Backbone Distributions
The International Plant Names Index and World Checklist of Selected Plant Families 2021. Published on the Internet at http://www.ipni.org and http://apps.kew.org/wcsp/
© Copyright 2017 World Checklist of Selected Plant Families. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0

Kew Names and Taxonomic Backbone
The International Plant Names Index and World Checklist of Selected Plant Families 2021. Published on the Internet at http://www.ipni.org and http://apps.kew.org/wcsp/
© Copyright 2017 International Plant Names Index and World Checklist of Selected Plant Families. http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0

Kew Science Photographs
Digital Image © Board of Trustees, RBG Kew http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0/

Kew Species Profiles
Kew Species Profiles
http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/3.0