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Galanthus nivalis, snowdrop

Summary

Saying 'the bulbs are mistaken for onions' seems improbable but it is this error which causes most of the cases of poisoning by snowdrop.

Blog Entries

Read more about Galanthus nivalis, snowdrop, in these blog entries;
Unusually early flowering shows nobody told nature the rules

Family

Liliaceae

Meaning of the Name

Galanthus
From the Greek ‘gala’, ‘milk’ and ‘anthos’, ‘flower’.
 
nivalis
Either as white as snow or growing in snow. Literally, ‘snow-covered’ or ‘snow-like’.

Galanthus nivalis

Galanthus nivalis, snowdrop

Common Names and Synonyms

snowdrop, death’s flower, maids of February

How Poisonous, How Harmful?

The whole plant is poisonous but especially the bulbs. It contains two alkaloids, narcissine (lycorine) and galantamine as well as the glycoside scillaine (scillitoxin).

Poisoning most often occurs when the bulbs are mistaken for onions. Initial symptoms are dizziness, stomach ache, nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea. Most people recover but a fatal dose is said to result in trembling and convulsions prior to death.

Incidents

Galanthus nivalis in woodland

Galanthus nivalis under trees

A couple explained how the wife had been out for the day leaving the husband to prepare dinner. When she came home he said he had used up the shallots. Knowing she did not have any shallots, the wife realised that he had put snowdrop bulbs into the meal. The meal went into the bin and they had bread and jam for tea. The husband was a farmer so if farmers can't tell the difference between onions and poisonous bulbs there is little hope for the rest of us.

Folklore and Facts

As the first flower of spring, it symbolises purity and a clean start after winter. The flower appears on Candlemas Day.

When Adam & Eve were expelled from the Garden of Eden into a land of winter, an angel blew on some snowflakes which grew as snowdrops to show that there is hope in even the direst predicament.

A single flower indicates impending death and it should never be brought into the house.

In October 2010, the UK's National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE) authorised the use of a number of drugs believed to slow the progress of early onset Alzheimer's disease. One of these is galantamine which was first used, in eastern Europe in the 1950s, to deal with memory impairment. NICE said that recent research had shown a cost effective benefit from the drugs.

Galantamine can be extracted from a number of genera, including Galanthus, though G. nivalis is not one of the plants used commercially.