There have been many failures in the course of the snowdropathon but the success I’m most pleased about is that I’ve managed to find Galanthus fosteri in flower in both the south and the north of its range. The forms from the south have been referred by some authorities to subsp. antepensis, whereas the northern forms are said to constitute the type subspecies but, as discussed below, I doubt the validity of this distinction.

Picture-perfect Galanthus fosteri habitat, but no Galanthus! Kayacik Village, near Amasya, 6/3/16.
Picture-perfect Galanthus fosteri habitat, but no Galanthus! Kayacik Village, near Amasya, 6/3/16.

I looked for it in two places near Amasya, a town that crops up frequently in old records of the species. In the first site, I found habitat that seemed picture-perfect. North-facing limestone boulder slopes and crags, with scrubby, oak tree cover. The snow was long gone at this elevation – about 1000m – and Cyclamen coum, together with a yellow Crocus species were flowering freely. The location was definitely correct and yet, try as I might, I could not find any snowdrops. Possibly I was still a little early, though I don’t really believe that is the explanation. Possibly the population is very small and I simply failed to stumble into it, but I looked in all the most promising places.

Cyclamen coum, Kayacik Village, near Amasya, 6/3/16.
Cyclamen coum, Kayacik Village, near Amasya, 6/3/16.
Crocus sp., Kayacik Village, near Amasya, 6/3/16.
Crocus sp., Kayacik Village, near Amasya, 6/3/16.

Puzzled, rather than disappointed, I returned to Amasya for the night, planning to try again the following morning. Amasya is a spectacularly positioned and rather attractive town, set amidst karst limestone mountains. A large, almost sheer cliff dominates the centre of town. The tombs of the ancient Pontic Kings are carved into this cliff face, the earliest dating from the 4th Century BCE.

Amasya and the tombs of the Pontic Kings.
Amasya and the tombs of the Pontic Kings.
Akdağ, above Amasya, snow-capped on 7/3/16.
Akdağ, above Amasya, snow-capped on 7/3/16.

Driving up into the mountains above the town, I quickly found a road that zigzags high into them. I was looking for north-facing cliffs above about 1000m, for G. fosteri by all accounts seems to be restricted to such sites. Sure enough, as I approached the magic 1000m mark, I caught a glimpse of snowdrops flowering at the top of a road cut.

Thicket of scrubby oak on north-facing slope at base of limestone cliffs - habitat of Galanthus fosteri.
Thicket of scrubby oak on north-facing slope at base of limestone cliffs – habitat of Galanthus fosteri.

Scrambling up the steep bank, I saw that a sparse population of snowdrops was growing in the stony, sticky, reddish, clay-rich soil, beneath the oaks and in crevices in the limestone that had filled with soil. Growing and flowering with them was Cyclamen coum, going over in fact, another Crocus species and a small, powder-blue Hyacinthella sp. Other herbs were emerging but not yet flowering.

Cyclamen coum, near Amasya. Most flowers going over, 7/3/16.
Cyclamen coum, near Amasya. Most flowers going over, 7/3/16.
Crocus sp., near Amasya, 7/3/16.
Crocus sp., near Amasya, 7/3/16.
Hyacinthella sp., near Amasya, 7/3/16.
Hyacinthella sp., near Amasya, 7/3/16.

The fist thing that struck me about the snowdrops was their diminutive size. These were tiny plants, some only five centimetres tall, with slender, fragile-looking leaves, and the largest topping out at an impressive 12 centimetres.

A tiny plant of Galanthus fosteri, only 5cm tall. Near Amasya, 7/3/16.
A tiny plant of Galanthus fosteri, only 5cm tall. Near Amasya, 7/3/16.

The rather narrow leaves, widest somewhere between the middle and the apex, were bright green, with the upper surface sometimes appearing to have a slightly bluish tinge. The vernation was obviously supervolute. The abaxial (lower) leaf surfaces were lightly grooved, in the manner of G. koenenianus, though not as strikingly as in that species.

Galanthus fosteri. Near Amasya, 7/3/16. Note bright green leaves and supervolute vernation.
Galanthus fosteri. Near Amasya, 7/3/16. Note bright green leaves.
Galanthus fosteri, near Amasya, 7/3/16. Note grooves on abaxial leaf surface.
Galanthus fosteri, near Amasya, 7/3/16. Note grooves on abaxial leaf surface.
Galanthus fosteri, near Amasya, 7/3/16. Note supervolute vernation, grooves on abaxial leaf surface and bright green colour.
Galanthus fosteri, near Amasya, 7/3/16. Note supervolute vernation, grooves on abaxial leaf surface and bright green colour.

The flowers had rather short claws, that inflated into elegant outer segments, with a bowed back and, in some cases, slightly reflexed margins. The flowers were small, but in proportion to the size of the plants. In some cases the outer segments were only 10mm long though typically closer to 20mm.

A shapely flower on Galanthus fosteri, near Amasya, 7/3/16.
A shapely flower on Galanthus fosteri, near Amasya, 7/3/16. Note also slight blueish cast to adaxial leaf surface.
Galanthus fosteri, near Amasya, 7/3/16. An example with a green smudge at the base of the outer segments. I saw a couple of examples like this bear Gaziantep too.
Galanthus fosteri, near Amasya, 7/3/16. An example with a green smudge at the base of the outer segments. I saw a couple of examples like this near Gaziantep too. You can just see that the inner segments of this individual were almost fully green.

The inner segments bore the typical G. fosteri basal and apical bottle-green marks. Whereas the plants I had seen near Adana a month previously were only just beginning to flower, this population was in full flower and most of the flowers were open, revealing some of the variation in markings.

Galanthus fosteri, near Amasya, 7/3/16. Variation in flower shape and inner segment markings.
Galanthus fosteri, near Amasya, 7/3/16. Variation in flower shape and inner segment markings.

The apical mark was a small inverted-U or V, occasionally reduced to two dots, either side of the fairly conspicuous sinus. The basal mark usually began a millimetre or so from the base, leaving a narrow white band at the base of the segments. The basal mark was more-or-less rectangular to teardrop-shaped and varied in size from less than a quarter to more than a half of the segment. Occasionally, though rarely, it merged with the apical mark.

Galanthus fosteri, near Amasya, 7/3/16. Variation in flower shape and inner segment markings.
Galanthus fosteri, near Amasya, 7/3/16. Variation in flower shape and inner segment markings.
Galanthus fosteri, near Amasya, 7/3/16. Variation in flower shape and inner segment markings.
Galanthus fosteri, near Amasya, 7/3/16. Variation in flower shape and inner segment markings.
Galanthus fosteri, near Amasya, 7/3/16. Variation in flower shape and inner segment markings.
Galanthus fosteri, near Amasya, 7/3/16. Variation in flower shape and inner segment markings.
Galanthus fosteri, near Amasya, 7/3/16. Variation in flower shape and inner segment markings.
Galanthus fosteri, near Amasya, 7/3/16. Variation in flower shape and inner segment markings.
Galanthus fosteri, near Amasya, 7/3/16. Variation in flower shape and inner segment markings.
Galanthus fosteri, near Amasya, 7/3/16. Variation in flower shape and inner segment markings.

In comparison with the plants I had seen in the vicinity of Adana, those I saw near Amasya were definitely smaller, on average, especially relative to those near Gaziantep. In other respects they appeared to be identical. One study found minute karyological differences between the two subspecies but, frankly, I’m really not convinced that the maintenance of the two subspecies is justified. Given the large distances between the small populations scattered across the species’ wide range, it would be surprising and not particularly interesting if small genetic differences had not accumulated.

I was powerfully struck, looking at the tiny populations that I discovered, after much effort and several failed attempts, by how extraordinary it was that these snowdrops, equipped only with an adaptation for short-range seed dispersal by ants, had ‘found’ the few, isolated patches of suitable habitat. With my GPS and botanical libraries, hired cars and road infrastructure, using all my ingenuity and experience, I had eventually located a few small populations. In each case the habitat was exactly ‘right’. Yet, if one were to prepare a map (which, with contemporary GIS, should be a trivial exercise) of suitable habitat patches, it would look like a less-populated part of the south Pacific.

How did these snowdrops find these rare patches of habitat? Presumably part of the answer must be that they were formerly much more abundant, possibly occupying a wider range of habitats in former times and climates. One has the impression, looking at G. fosteri in the wild, of a species clinging to existence by the very tips of its metaphorical fingernails, restricted now to a few minute islands of deep shade, in an inhospitable desert of sun-baked limestone. Long may it continue to grow in these wild places.

Galanthus fosteri and Cyclamen coum. Near Amasya, 7/3/16.
Galanthus fosteri and Cyclamen coum. Near Amasya, 7/3/16.

 

One thought

  1. Hi Tom,

    Those metaphorical fingertips might just be slipping a little more given the latest global warming figures. Fascinating that the hoary old problem of species has come up again.
    You are doing such valuable fieldwork and it’s bound to rattle old preconceptions. I personally am so glad you are a “”lumper” on this one and reginae olgae (my prejudices are showing).

    I’d say your yellow crocus is good old chrysanthus. Your blue flower is probably Muscari azureum, but maybe hyacinthella micrantha. In days gone by I would have tentatively said your other crocus was C. biflorus ssp taurii but now I’d be slam dunked for such herasy so I will defer to those further up the command chain.

    Cheers, Marcus

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