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.

G. nivalis, Slovenia, 29/2/16.
G. nivalis, Slovenia, 29/2/16.

Here are a couple of pictures of typical Slovenian G. nivalis.

 

Galanthus nivalis, SE Slovenia, 29/2/16.
Galanthus nivalis, SE Slovenia, 29/2/16.
Galanthus nivalis, SE Slovenia, 29/2/16.
Galanthus nivalis, SE Slovenia, 29/2/16.

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.

G. nivalis, Slovenia, 29/2/16.
G. nivalis, Slovenia, 29/2/16.
G. nivalis, Slovenia, 29/2/16.
G. nivalis, Slovenia, 29/2/16.
G. nivalis, Slovenia, 29/2/16. Note the green leaves.
G. nivalis, Slovenia, 29/2/16. Note the green leaves.
G. nivalis, Slovenia, 29/2/16.
G. nivalis, Slovenia, 29/2/16.
G. nivalis, Slovenia, 29/2/16.
G. nivalis, Slovenia, 29/2/16.
G. nivalis, Slovenia, 29/2/16.
G. nivalis, Slovenia, 29/2/16.
G. nivalis, Slovenia, 29/2/16.
G. nivalis, Slovenia, 29/2/16.

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.

Helleborus atrorubens, Cyclamen purpurascens (foliage) and Galanthus nivalis. Slovenia, 28/2/16.
Helleborus atrorubens, Cyclamen purpurascens (foliage) and Galanthus nivalis. Slovenia, 28/2/16.
Hepatica nobilis, Slovenia, 28/2/16.
Hepatica nobilis and Galanthus nivalis, Slovenia, 28/2/16.
Hacquetia epipactis, Slovenia, 28/2/16.
Hacquetia epipactis, Slovenia, 28/2/16.
Erythronium dens-canis, Slovenia, 28/2/16.
Erythronium dens-canis, Slovenia, 28/2/16.
Viola sp. and Galanthus nivalis, Slovenia, 29/2/16.
Viola sp. and Galanthus nivalis, Slovenia, 29/2/16.
Helleborus odorus and Galanthus nivalis. Slovenia, 29/2/16.
Helleborus odorus and Galanthus nivalis. Slovenia, 29/2/16.

I envisage a future snowdropathon, focusing solely on this wonderful species.

One thought

  1. Hello Tom,
    Only just found your blog after someone who knew of my own snowdrop project sent me a link to it.
    Lovely photos of habitats and the range of variations amongst G.nivalis. Huge variations compared with a typical British population… any ideas why?

    Also I wondered if you’ve found any populations of G. flore pleno co existing with G. nivalis. Or indeed any at all? And if so, whether you subscribe to the view that G. flore pleno are sterile…in my own little local project, I’ve seen some massive flore pleno colonies in old sites, which it’s difficult to imagine don’t have some component of seed spread.

    Also any double forms of any of the other species?

    In view of issues of when snowdrops got to Britain, whether you’ve looked at nivalis populations, or indeed other snowdrops in Italy, in particular the areas around Rome, which might have been the destination of many travellers from Britain in the very early centuries A.D?

    Finally (? too many questions??), whether you’ve encountered snowdrops used in any ‘gardening’ or religious way, on your travels, as they seem to be in the UK – in particular similar to their associations with churchyards over here?

    Readers might enjoy another blog, by Julian Williams in Pembrokeshire, which considers the history of snowdrops in European culture… See the following link:

    http://drawingandillusion.blogspot.com/2016/02/the-secret-history-of-snowdrops.html

    Best wishes
    Julian.
    PS. Hope this sticks!

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