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What is Galanthus?

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  • Written By: Niki Foster
  • Edited By: C. Wilborn
  • Last Modified Date: 04 December 2016
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Galanthus, commonly called snowdrop, is a genus of about 20 species of flowering plants cultivated from bulbs. They belong to the Amaryllis family, along with lilies and daffodils. The name Galanthus is Latin for "milk-white flowers," as all species of the plant have white flowers. Snowdrops are native to much of Europe and western Asia, and they have been naturalized over an even wider area, including parts of the United States and Canada. Many of the plants are threatened in the wild, however, and it is illegal in most countries to collect Galanthus bulbs from the wild.

Plants in this genus have a single, pendulous, bell-shaped flower on each flower stalk. The white flower lacks petals, but has three inner and three outer tepals or segments, similar to petals. The inner ones are much shorter in most species, and usually tipped with green. The flowers commonly grow over large patches of land in the wild.

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Galanthus is cultivated from bulbs or seeds, and all species are perennial. Most species flower in late winter to early spring, but some bloom in early spring or late fall. There are many different hybrids and cultivars of snowdrop, including double-flowered varieties. Large snowdrop gardens are popular in the United Kingdom, where the flowers are celebrated as a sign of spring. Though snowdrops were one believed to be native to England or to have been introduced to the British Isles by the Romans, it is now thought that the flowers did not reach Britain's shores until the 16th century.

The most widespread and well known species of Galanthus is G. nivalis. It has numerous cultivars, some dating from the 19th century. Collectors of Galanthus are known as galanthophiles, a term coined in the 19th century, and the names of many Galanthus species, hybrids, and cultivars commemorate early snowdrop collectors.

In addition to its ornamental uses, snowdrop may be used to treat Alzheimer's disease, though it is not a cure. The alkaloid galantamine, obtained from the bulbs of G. woronowii and closely related species, may help relieve the symptoms of mild to moderate Alzheimer's disease and vascular dementia. It is also used by some people as a dietary supplement to promote lucid dreaming or out of body experience. In the past, galantamine has also been used to treat polio and central nervous system disorders. Commercial names for galantamine include Nivalin®, Razadyne®, and Reminyl®.

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