Posted by: Bystander PJ10 FEB 2010
The common snowdrop is a familiar and much loved late-winter flower that should by now be in bloom in sheltered gardens and damp woods. Its specific name, Galanthus nivalis, can be translated as “milk flower of the snow”.
Another English name is “snow piercer”, from the way the new shoots force their way up through frozen ground.
The plant is a member of the amaryllis family (Amaryllidaceae). Its tough grey-green leaves are long and slender and each flower stalk produces one nodding flower head with white outer petals and green-tinged inner petals.
The flower heads are followed by green seed pods, which distribute the seeds close by to form spreading colonies.
Snowdrops grow throughout England, Wales and southern Scotland in deciduous woodland, on road verges, beside streams and in parks and churchyards.
About 60 years ago, a pharmacologist in Bulgaria noticed peasants rubbing their foreheads with snowdrops to ease pain. This led to the publication of a paper by two Russians, who gave the first pharmacological description of galantamine, present in the plant’s leaves and bulbs. They showed that galantamine helps maintain normal levels of acetylcholine in the brain by inhibiting acetylcholinesterase.
Because it enhances neurotransmission in the brain, galantamine has been used in Eastern Europe in treating poliomyelitis. There is some evidence that, long before galantamine’s isolation, some peasant communities were using snowdrop bulbs to treat poliomyelitis in children, who recovered without any paralysis.
More recently, galantamine’s inhibition of acetylcholinesterase has been used in the treatment of mild to moderate Alzheimer’s disease, in which the brain’s acetylcholine levels are reduced. It also increases the effectiveness of the brain’s nicotinic receptors, which are thought to play a key role in attention, memory and learning.
Other uses of galantamine are in neurological conditions, such as post-polio paralysis and myasthenia gravis, and in neuromuscular ailments such as neuritis and neuralgia.
Recently, Spanish scientists have identified 17 bioactive alkaloids in snowdrops — 10 from G nivalis and seven from G elwesii, which originates in the Caucasus. Three of the alkaloids are new to science and are expected to be screened for possible use in dementia and cerebral malaria.