Snowdrops

Rachel Shaw

A mass of white snowdrops are a much antipated sight in late winter and they have special adaptations to thrive in the cold conditions

When I’m feeling weary of grey winter skies, there is one flower that I particularly look forward to seeing. It’s a prelude to spring that can brighten the gloomiest of winter days; it is the snowdrop.

When other plants are still dormant, tucked up warm beneath the soil, snowdrops are growing. Their bright white nodding flowers and thin leaves may appear delicate but some of their alternative names suggest something different. In France, they are more commonly known as pierce-neige; snow piercer.

Snowdrops

Snowdrops are tough little plants, adapted to pierce through snow and survive the cold. The tips of their leaves are especially hardened for breaking through frozen ground and their sap contains a form of antifreeze that prevents ice crystals from forming. Although in the harshest weather, snowdrops show signs of freezing stress, they recover as soon as temperatures rise; their cells undamaged.

On warmer winter days, when the sun breaks through the clouds and spreads a little warmth, I’m not the only one that’s on the look-out for snowdrops. Winter sunshine can wake insects from their hibernation including bees. The insects are hungry and in need of food and snowdrops are one of the few sources of pollen and nectar available.

Most snowdrops spread as the bulbs divide and create new bulbs but early flying bees visiting the flowers may pollinate them. If they are pollinated, something quite remarkable happens. Snowdrops have a strategy for getting their seeds planted.

Snowdrops

After flowering, the snowdrop stems collapse and seed pods develop on the surface of the soil. Each seed has a small oil and protein-rich appendage called an elastiome. This attracts ants. The ants take the seeds into their nests and feed the elastiome to their larvae. The seeds themselves remain untouched but have been planted by the ants.

If you venture out in search of snowdrops, listen for birds singing too. The Swiss name for snowdrops is Amselblumli or blackbird flower because they blooms as the amsel, the blackbird, start to sing. Surely a sign of the spring to come and that winter is loosening its icy grip.

Blackbird singing Image by Manfred Richter from Pixabay 
Article first published in the Spalding Guardian