SNOWDROPS: HEALTH BENEFITS PROVEN BY MEDICAL SCIENCE
Snowdrops are native to Europe, and their original range extended from the Pyrenees to Ukraine eastward and from Germany and Poland through to southern Italy, Albania and northern Greece. They became naturalized in northern Europe including the British Isles.
Writing in the latter part of the 16th century Gerard says that they were a garden flower, and said “Nothing is set down hereof by the ancient writers, nor anything observed by the moderne” as regards their medicinal properties. However we now know that Gerard was wrong. The Bulbous Violet as the snowdrop was called then was mentioned in an old glossary dating from 1465, under the name “Leucis i viola alba” or the white violet, stating that it was an emmenogogue, used to regulate menstruation. It can also be found under narcissi in other old manuscripts and these say that it was a “digestive, resolutive and consolidante” so Gerard hadn’t done his homework too well.
Snowdrops also go by the name “Fair Maid of February” which is when it pushes its head up through the winter snows, bringing with it the promise of spring and life and rebirth after the cold of winter. It was one of my grandmother’s favourite flowers as was the blue violet. Legend has it that when Adam and Eve were thrown out of the Garden of Eden it was winter on Earth and snowing. Eve cried for the warmth of Paradise and God took pity on her and transformed some snowflakes into snowdrops to console her. Hence they are now the flower of Hope.
The Druids traveled before they settled in the British Isles and it is possible that they knew of the healing properties of the snowdrop, as in Celtic mythology it is the flower of the Triple goddess, Brigit, goddess of poetry and inspiration, of healing and of the blacksmiths arts. She was the goddess of the New Moon and of flame hearth and the smithy. The Celtic nation of Brigantia was once in parts of Spain, Brittany and the British Isles, and as the snowdrop was native to Spain, the Celts would have known of it. Whatever the case, their healing was lost in the period of the introduction of Christianity and we may only now be beginning to rediscover what they knew of the healing powers of plants. A German legend says that snow got its whiteness from the snowdrop as it wanted a colour and god said it should ask plants and animals for some of theirs. Only the snowdrop was willing to share its colour with the snow and so it is white.
It is believed that snowdrops were taken to the British Isles by monks from Italy, as they were grown in old monastery gardens.
William Wordsworth wrote lines “On seeing a Tuft of Snowdrops” in 1819: -
…these frail snowdrops together cling,
And nod their helmets, smitten by the wing
Of many a furious whirl-blast sweeping by”
And this “whirl-blast” seems to accurately describe the way Alzheimer’s patients must feel. It is perhaps apt that modern medical research has shown that galanthamine or galantamine, extracted from snowdrops may be able to help Alzheimer’s sufferers.
A Russian pharmacologist visiting Bulgaria observed a peasant woman treating children with poliomyelitis with a concoction made from snowdrop bulbs, and was amazed when they recovered without any signs of paralysis. Later, in 1951, another Russian pharmacologist, Mashkovsky, discovered galanthamine in the snowdrop Galanthus woronwii and this has been used in Eastern Europe for the alleviation of neuromuscular ailments including neuralgia and neuritis. It enhances the neurotransmissions in the brain, so was used for poliomyelitis.
Now in the West, snowdrop lectin (Galanthus nivalis agglutinin) from Galanthus nivalis is being studied for its potential activity against HIV. It is also a powerful insecticide. Galanthamine is used in the treatment of traumatic injuries to the nervous system too.
It seems as though the humble snowdrop has a lot of health benefits for us that we probably hadn’t realized.