From: Davis (1999). Permission has been granted by the author.
G. nivalis L., in Sp. pl. 1: 288 (1753). G. imperati Bertol. G. nivalis L. subsp. imperati (Bertol.) Baker.
BULB ± spherical to ovoid, (1.5–)2–2.4 x 1.1–1.7(–2.3) cm. SHEATH 3.5–6 x 0.5–0.8 cm. Vernation applanate. LEAVES ± linear to very narrowly oblanceolate (very slightly broader in the middle to upper third), (4.5–)5–15(–26) x (0.3–)0.4–1(–1.4) cm, during and after flowering developing slightly in length and width, erect or recurving at maturity; midrib conspicuous; margins flat or subrevolute, particularly near the base of leaf; apex acute to acute-obtuse, flat or very slightly hooded; surfaces smooth; upper and lower surfaces ± the same colour or slightly different, upper surface glaucescent or infrequently nearly glaucous (grey-green), often with a glaucescent median stripe, matt, lower leaf surfaces glaucescent to glaucous, matt. SCAPE (2–)7–15(–18) cm long, green to glaucescent. PEDICEL 12–30 mm long. OUTER PERIANTH segments obovate to broadly obovate, or ± elliptic, 15–23(–26) x 6–11 mm, slightly unguiculate. INNER PERIANTH segments obovate to ± obtriangular in outline, 7–12 x 4–6 mm, each segment with a sinus and an apical ± V- to U-shaped green mark, often broadest at the tips (enlarged in the lobes, either side of the sinus); inner face of each segment with a faint green mark covering ± the entire segment. ANTHERS tapering to a long point. CAPSULE ± spherical, 10–16 mm in diameter. SEEDS pale brown, c.4 mm long.
Flowers between January and May in nature; January and April in cultivation.
Notes: Introduced and naturalized in several countries, particularly in northern Europe. Galanthus nivalis is often referred to as ‘the common snowdrop’. It has the largest natural distribution of any species, is widespread in cultivation, and has become naturalized in many parts of Europe. In the British Isles it is certainly the most common species of Galanthus, both in countryside and garden. Its history in print can be traced back to the sixteenth century herbals and florilegia, when it was being cultivated as an ornamental plant. Gerard (1597) includes G. nivalis, Leucojum aestivum and L. vernum in his Herball, although at that time they were given quite different names. He says of them: ‘These plants do grow wild in Italie and the places adjacent, notwithstanding our London gardens have taken possession of them all, many years past.’ However, the comment ‘Some call them also Snowdrops’ interpolated by Johnson (Gerard 1633), and their omission by Francis Bacon in his essay ‘On Gardens’ (1625), has been interpreted as suggesting that they were uncommon in cultivation at that time (e.g. Bowles 1914). It is of note that G. nivalis was not included in the important works of William Turner, namely Libellus de Re herbaria (1538), The Names of Herbes (1548), and his New Herball (1551–62, 1562). These mentioned many indigenous and introduced species, including bulbous plants such as snowflakes (Leucojum) and different narcissus (then including other genera as well as Narcissus). The omission of G. nivalis from the early floras of England and the British Isles might suggest that they were not widely naturalized even in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. For example, they are not mentioned by John Ray in his Synopsis methodica stirpium britannicarum of 1690. In the third edition of the same work Ray (1724) includes some rather rare bulbous plants, such as daffodils (Narcissus spp.), star of Bethlehem and related species (Ornithogalum spp.), meadow saffron (Colchicum autumnale), and crocus (Crocus sp.), but not Galanthus. In Flora anglica Linnaeus (1754) includes over 1,000 species but does not mention Galanthus. Likewise, they are not listed in Hill’s Flora britanica [sic] (Hill 1760), or in A Synopsis of British Plants by Wilson (1744). However, other eighteenth century floras suggest that they were quite widely naturalized, and even indigenous. According to Clarke (1900), the first record of G. nivalis in Britain is by Withering (1776: 783) who gives the distribution as: ‘Near Cirencester in Gloucestershire, and plentifully at the foot of the Malvern Hills, Worcestershire’. In Flora anglica Hudson (1778) says that G. nivalis is frequent in meadows, hedges, and orchards, occurring in the historical counties of Westmorland, Cumberland, Lancaster, and Gloucester. In Flora britannica Smith (1800) gives the distribution as: ‘At the foothills of the Malvern hills, Worcestershire’ … ‘On the banks of the Tees about Blackwell and Conniscliffe, certainly wild’ … and ‘Bedfordshire’. Some (e.g. Church 1908) have stated that the snowdrop was introduced from the Mediterranean during the centuries of Roman occupation, but there seems to be little more than circumstantial evidence to support this idea. With the evidence presently at hand it seems most likely that G. nivalis was introduced into the British Isles somewhere around the early sixteenth century.
The great Swedish naturalist Carl Linnaeus gave the common snowdrop its scientific name in 1753, calling it G. nivalis, in his landmark publication Species plantarum. The epithet nivalis pertains to snow, and either refers to the snow-like quality of the snowdrop’s flower or to the association of this species with snow.
Galanthus nivalis is characterized by its applanate vernation, and the single green mark at the apex of each inner perianth segment. The upper surface of each leaf is glaucescent to almost glaucous, and there is sometimes a glaucescent stripe running along the centre of the upper leaf surface. The lower leaf surface is usually slightly greyer than the upper surface. The margins of the leaves are either flat or subrevolute, particularly near the base of the leaf. The inner segment mark is usually more or less a V- or U-shape, and is often characteristically enlarged at the tips, either side of the sinus.
The natural distribution of G. nivalis is western, central, and southern Europe. It occurs from the Pyrenees in the west to the Ukraine in the east. It does not occur in the Near East, and is absent from the part of Turkey that lies in Asia. The northern limit of distribution is impossible to ascertain because it has been so frequently introduced to gardens and parks and has become widely naturalized. It is not native in the British Isles, northern France, and the Netherlands, for example. In southern Europe G. nivalis probably does not extend further south than 40° N, although it occurs naturally in the Pyrenees, probably in northern Spain, southern Italy, and the northern Balkans. It does not occur in Corsica, Sardinia, or Sicily. Populations of G. nivalis in Turkey-in-Europe mostly belong to the hybrid G. xvalentinei nothosubsp. subplicatus, and further work is needed to ascertain whether ‘pure’ G. nivalis occurs in Turkey (Davis et al., 2001).
Numerous names have been given to G. nivalis throughout its natural distribution, including G. montana (from Germany), G. nivalis var. minus (from Italy), G. imperati (from southern Italy), and G. nivalis var. carpaticus (from the Ukraine). At present, there seems no good reason to recognize any infraspecific taxa of G. nivalis. There are, however, some variants that differ from the norm, and these require further discussion (see below). After further research, some infraspecific taxonomic recognition may be necessary.
Galanthus imperati was formally named by Bertoloni in 1834 as a species from the district of Naples in Italy. It is considered by some to represent a subspecies or variety of G. nivalis, and is sometimes used on garden labels and in plant catalogues. Study of wild-origin material shows that this plant is rather large for G. nivalis, and has a glaucescent to almost glaucous stripe running down the centre of the leaf. A glaucous central stripe is a characteristic feature of G. reginae-olgae, and therefore plants associated with the name ‘imperati’ often look similar to the large forms of G. reginae-olgae, and particularly G. reginae-olgae subsp. vernalis. The combination of larger than average size and a quite conspicuously striped leaf make these plants from Italy appear rather different to the regular G. nivalis grown in gardens. However, it should be noted that wild populations of G. nivalis may possess an obvious glaucescent stripe on the upper surface of the leaf, particularly those from the southern part of the natural range, for example in the former Yugoslavia and Albania. Size is also a variable character in G. nivalis. In conclusion, it seems inappropriate to recognize G. imperati as a subspecies or variety of G. nivalis. Plants grown in gardens as G. ‘Imperati’ are almost certainly not the same as those found in southern Italy, but instead are usually larger plants, and some are probably of hybrid origin.
In the wild, G. nivalis predominantly occurs in deciduous woodlands, particularly with beech (Fagus sylvatica), oak (e.g. Quercus robur, Q. petraea), hornbeam (Carpinus betulus, C. orientalis), elm (Ulmus spp.), ash (Fraxinus excelsior), and sometimes lime (Tilia spp.). It may also occur amongst scrub, and rocks. It favours natural vegetation, and frequently occurs in humid places, for example near rivers and streams by springs, on wet stony slopes, and in gorges. It may become inundated by short-lived winter and spring floods, as in the valley of the Labe in the Czech Republic. Like many other species of Galanthus, it is frequently found in places that have a northerly aspect, and often occurs on sloping ground. The soil is usually deep, fertile and humus-rich, and it is also found in soils that contain a high proportion of sand and clay. Galanthus nivalis frequently occurs on calcareous substrates (e.g. limestone or chalk), but it can also be found on volcanic (e.g. granite), and metamorphic (e.g. schist) rocks. These substrates bear soils of various pH values, but the soil is usually not strongly acidic (e.g. pH 5, or above). The altitude range of G. nivalis lies between 100 and 1,600 m, although it is most frequent above 600 m.
Naturalized G. nivalis often forms large colonies, for example in the woodlands of the British Isles and other parts of Europe, spreading quickly by offsetting bulbs, and sometimes by seed. Vegetative reproduction by offsetting bulbs enables reproduction of sterile plants (those not producing seed), and means that all the progeny are genetically identical to the parent bulbs, although mutations can occur. No doubt many of the early cultivars of G. nivalis were found as naturalized plants, and brought into cultivation because of their beauty or curiosity value. Examples would include clones with double flowers, yellow markings, or aberrant segments. In the wild, natural variation is also encountered, including notable populations in the Czech Republic (Grimshaw 2000); but generally the level of odd variants and mutations is surprisingly low, although plant size and leaf colour is quite variable. In northern Europe the variation seen in naturalized and garden populations is sometimes very limited, and the plants are often recognizably distinct from those found wild in central and southern Europe, which usually differ in a suite of subtle characters, especially in the poise and shape of the flowers and the posture of the foliage. In the cultivar descriptions we have referred to these plants as the ‘British stock’ of G. nivalis, for comparative purposes.
Galanthus nivalis is an easy snowdrop to grow in the British Isles, and in regions that have a similar climate, producing large colonies with only minimal care and effort. The many millions of cultivated and naturalized G. nivalis in the woodlands and gardens of the British Isles are testimony to the suitability of this species to our climate.