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snowdrop photoThe Common Snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) is the best-known representative of a small genus of about 20 species in the family Amaryllidaceae that are among the first bulbs to bloom in spring.

All species of Galanthus have bulbs, linear leaves, and erect flowering stalks, destitute of leaves but bearing at the top a solitary pendulous bell-shaped flower. Galanthus nivalis grows 15 cm tall, flowering in January or February in the northern temperate zone. The white flower has six petals, the outer three segments being larger and more convex than the inner series. The six anthers open by pores or short slits. The ovary is three-celled, ripening into a three-celled capsule.

Snowdrops should not be confused with their relatives Snowflakes, Leucojum species; leucojums are much larger and flower in spring (or early summer, depending on the species), with all six petals in the flower the same size, though it should be noted that some "poculiform" (slipper-shaped) Galanthus can have inner segments similar in length to the outer ones.

Propagation is by offsets removed when the plants are at rest, immediately after the leaves have withered; or by seeds sown either when ripe, or in spring. Professional growers and keen amateurs also use such methods as "twin-scaling" to increase the stock of choice varieties quickly.

Double-flowered forms such as Galanthus nivalis f. pleniflorus 'Flore Pleno' may be less attractive to the eye of the purist. There are numerous cultivars (cultivated varieties), single and double, differing particularly in the size and markings of the flower, the period of flowering, and other characteristics of interest to keen (even fanatical) collectors known as "galanthophiles".

Other notable species:

* Crimean snowdrop, Galanthus plicatus, 30 cm tall, flowering January/March, white flowers, with broad leaves folded back at the edges
* Giant snowdrop, Galanthus elwesii, a native of the Levant, 23 cm tall, flowering January/February, with large flowers, the three inner segments of which often have a much larger and more conspicuous green blotch (or blotches) than the more common kinds.

Active substances

It was suggested by Duvoisin in 1983 that the mysterious magical herb moly that appears in Homer's Odyssey is actually snowdrop. An active substance in snowdrop is called galantamine, which, as anticholinesterase, could have acted as a antidote to Circe's poisons. Galantamine (or galanthamine) can be helpful in the treatment of Alzheimer's disease, though it is not a cure; the substance also occurs naturally in daffodils and other narcissi.

Cultivars of Galanthus nivalis

Single flowered cultivars

* Galanthus nivalis Poculiformis Group - inner segments are almost same length and shape as outer ones, usually unmarked and without a "sinus" (notch); includes such cultivars as 'Sandhill Gate'
* G. nivalis Sandersii Group - marks on inner segments are yellow instead of green; includes 'Sandersii' and 'Lutescens'
* G. nivalis Scharlockii Group - "donkey's ears snowdrop" with elongated spathe split down centre, resembling upright ears

Double-flowered cultivars

* G. nivalis f. pleniflorus 'Blewbury Tart' - upward- or outward-facing flowers with dark green markings in the centre
* G. nivalis f. pleniflorus 'Flore Pleno' - doubles, usually quite untidy rosettes of extra segments of uneven length
* G. nivalis f. pleniflorus 'Lady Elphinstone' - a version of 'Flore Pleno' with yellowish colouring inside the flowers instead of green; may revert or vary from year to year
* G. nivalis f. pleniflorus 'Pusey Green Tip' - with small green tips to the outer segments

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