Hot on the heels of one of my favourite garden birds, one of my favourite flowers: The Snowdrop (the photo was taken back in mid-February)
Snowdrops are members of the plant genus Galanthus (from the Greek 'gala'=milk, 'anthus' = flower). What I've learnt about them has been mostly through Mark Smyth's very nice Snowdropinfo website, the Royal Horticultural site, the BBC site, and from my trusty copy of The Englishman's Flora (Geoffrey Grigson).
Firstly, regarding the name, both the RHS site and Grigson state that 'Snowdrop' derives from the German word Schneetropfen, a type of ear ring popular in the 16th and 17th century. Now, whilst I'm entirely happy to accept this, neither author gives a reference without which it's not immediately obvious to me that likening this plant to a 16th century German earring is more likely than people having chosen the 'Snowdrop' after... er, well...drops of snow! (Anyone?)
Geoffrey Grigson lists other folk names including Eve's Tears and Candelmas Bells, the latter a reference to the Christian festival of February 2nd when Snowdrops are one of the few plants in flower.
The snowdrop, in purest white arraie,
First rears her hedde on Candlemas daie
(Early church calendar of English flowers, c. 1500 - see here)
According to the BBC's site, bringing Snowdrops into the house at Candelmas symbolises a death.
Snowdrops are widely spread across Europe and Asia. There are nineteen true species (there's a list on Wikipedia's Snowdrop page) and literally hundreds of artificial cultivars, with new ones created all the time by enthusiasts ("Galanthophiles"), and old varieties occasionally re-discovered in sleepy vicarage gardens or (see the National Trust site here) on overgrown Victorian rubbish dumps!
You can find a photo-gallery of cultivars on Mark Smyth's site. What characteristics elevate nineteen types of Snowdrop to true species level I'm not sure (anyone?). My copy of 'The Wildflower Key' (Francis Rose) lists only one for the UK - Galanthus nivalis.
The chemical Galantamine was first isolated from Snowdrops and today finds medical application in the treatment of Alzeimer's disease.
Finally a few words on Snowdrop pests and diseases, of which there are various: The RHS site describes the two fungi Botrytis galanthinae and Stagonospora curtisii as 'the bane of many snowdrop growers.' Snowdrops are also attacked by the larvae of the Swift Moth and the stem nematode worm (Ditylenchus dipsaci) (you can download a pdf file about the latter here). Prize for impressive pest has to go to the Narcissus fly (Merodon equestris) however. This black-and-yellow insect wards off predators by mimicking a Bumblebee. You can find some photo's at the insect images website. Painful as it will be to the ears of gardeners, and although I enjoy my garden's snowdrops far too much to want to see them all wiped out, as an amateur naturalist I have to say I wouldn't mind sacrificing just one or two bulbs for the chance to see one of these flies for myself!