Plant distribution is fascinating. Studying it reveals so much about the history of our planet. The puzzle posed by fossil plants (and animals) showing up in rocks from the same geological era in both Africa and South America helped Wegener on his way to the theory of plate tectonics, which clarified so much that had previously been clouded.
Snowdrops contain examples that are restricted to tiny home ranges (for example, Galanthus cilicicus, G. trojanus and G. panjutinii); others that have odd, disjunct populations (for example Galanthus reginae-olgae) and yet others that have ranges spanning thousands of kilometres (for example G. lagodechianus and G. nivalis).
The last of these species, Galanthus nivalis, occurs from the central Pyrenees in the west to the south-east coast of Bulgaria in the east (and possibly in Turkish Thrace); it is found from the Monti Matese in the southern Appenines of Italy, to Poland and Ukraine in the north. In many ways it is the most successful species in the genus, which originated in what is now the Caucasus, repeatedly recolonising marginal habitats from the refugia to which it presumably retreated during glaciations.
It would be surprising indeed if, given this history and its enormous range, G. nivalis were genetically or phenotypically homogeneous. According to the latest research, there are at least two major clades (roughly speaking, lineages) in Galanthus nivalis, which are indistinguishable morphologically but which are probably at least as distinct from one another genetically as, say, G. elwesii and G. gracilis.
I’ve been lucky enough to see G. nivalis across most of its range and have witnessed some of the extraordinary variants on the basic snowdrop body plan thrown up by mutation. Attempting to say anything meaningful about G. nivalis on the basis of a two day trip to Slovenia would be as absurd as describing Homo sapiens after a pub crawl in Surbiton.
So I won’t try. Slovenia, as it happens, is absolutely jam-packed full of snowdrops. Most of the river valleys and mountains in that small but delightful country have their snowdrop populations and, as documented by Jose Bavcon, of the Ljubljana Botanic Garden, in several fascinating books on the subject, they are almost incredibly diverse.
Here are a couple of pictures of typical Slovenian G. nivalis.
Note the glaucous leaves (usually described as ‘glaucescent’ which, on reflection, I think is too subtle a distinction to be useful), with a faint, pale, longitudinal stripe on the upper surface. The elegant flowers, with longish claws, have a single green mark at the apex of the inner segments, above a pronounced sinus. Classic nivalis.
Then, spend a little time looking, and you see plants like those illustrated below.
I won’t attempt here to describe the variation but will let the pictures do the talking. These snowdrops, especially in the SE of the country, flower in the company of other extraordinary plants. I know nowhere else on earth where the woods are such natural gardens, packed with plants that you might want to grow yourself.
I envisage a future snowdropathon, focusing solely on this wonderful species.