snowdrop

The vernal equinox will be here in a few days.  This welcome news is hard to believe because the temperatures in Brooklyn are still dipping into the twenties at night.  However the first bulbs are beginning to crop up in the garden (although the insatiable squirrels nip them down as quickly as they appear).    A few bulbs have already flowered:  one of the earliest of spring flowers, the Galanthus (or snowdrop) has one of the most fragile and delicate appearances of any garden plant.  The translucent white hanging flowers resemble dainty tropical moths and grow from tender green shoots.

Snowdrop flower

Snowdrop flower

There are 20 species of snowdrops—all of which are hardy perennial herbaceous plants.  The pendulous white & green flower of a snowdrop has no petals but consists of 6 large tepals (3 of which are larger than the others). Snowdrops naturalize well in Northern deciduous forests.  Because they bloom so early they have the entire woodland to themselves and they form magnificent white drifts almost reminiscent of famous bluebell woods.

Snowdrops, Evenley Wood (Garden Photograph by Laure Ball)

Snowdrops, Evenley Wood (Garden Photograph by Laure Ball)

Numerous poets, writers, and artists have alluded to the snowdrop as a symbol of hope and a metaphor for the passions of spring.  For example Hans Christian Anderson wrote an uplifting story for children about a snowdrop desperately aspiring to the light then blooming only to be picked and pressed in a book of poetry.  [Ed. As an aside, does anyone remember why Hans Christian Anderson was such a beloved children’s author?]

Snowdrops at Swyncombe (Noël Kingsley)

Snowdrops at Swyncombe (Noël Kingsley)

Snowdrops are not just a lovely harbinger of spring, they also have a tiny place in one of the great unfolding fights about bioengineering.  Snowdrops contain various active compounds useful for medicine or with insecticidal properties.  In 1998 a Hungarian scientist, Arpad Pusztai, publically spoke about rodent studies conducted on potatoes which had been transgenically altered to express snowdrop lectins (for insecticidal purposes).  Dr. Pusztai asserted that the modified potatoes were causing damage to the intestinal epiphelial cells of the rats (and imputed broader health dangers to the modified tubers).   The subsequent scandal impacted science, media, politics, business, and culture.  The scientific community came to the conclusion that Pusztai’s research was flawed (while anti-GMO community flocked to his support and rallied around his work as an example of how GMOs could potentially be dangerous).

snowbell?

Um, snowdrop?