by Cheyenne Tait – At this time of year, at the very end of winter, I often find myself looping around to visit the dumpsters as I walk home. That might sound strange to you… and okay, it does sound really strange. But I do it to see if the snowdrops have come up yet. It is not their fault that they exist at the edge of the woods, right behind the dumpster.
A snowdrop sounds like it could be some kind of candy, like a lemon drop. Instead it’s a small, dainty white flower, drooped downwards like a bell. In temperate regions, they emerge first of all the plants in the spring, occasionally even pushing through the snow, to provide some green to a world still full of the grays and browns of the dormant winter plants.
And they always are already up when I decide to visit in the middle of March – I have never seen just the sprouts. The white flowers are always waiting. They have been a sign of spring’s returning, and new growth beginning, for hundreds of years. And I have to admit that there is something cheerful about the bright, new green against the drab background.
A sign of spring for some, a focus of legends and folklore for others, for scientists snowdrops are many things as well. The first flower of spring, they are a source of pollen for early pollinators, such as honeybees. Their seeds have elaiosomes, fleshy sugar filled structures to attract ants, such that ants then carry around their seeds and disperse them into new habitats. But in fact, snowdrops flower so early in the season that they do not rely solely on pollination, and instead can reproduce by dividing their bulbs rather than forming seeds.
Native to Europe, and actually endangered due to habitat loss and over-harvesting by cultivators in their original range, snowdrops have been introduced across the world – including the small patch of them near my apartment in the American Midwest. Additionally, because they do have such a specific window for blooming, snowdrops may be more affected by climate change.
Snowdrops also have an interesting chemical make-up. They produce galantamine, an acetylcholinesterase inhibitor which can be helpful for treating Alzheimer’s and is actually named for the snowdrops’ genus (Galanthus). Snowdrops also produce GNA, or “snowdrop lectin”, a protein which specifically binds sugars, and thus has insecticidal properties which scientists have moved to exploit to protect crops (not yet with commercial success).
A tiny plant in the shade of a dumpster, yes, but snowdrops are definitely much more than that.