Compiling a collection of snowdrops

The Utrecht University Botanic Gardens is working with researchers from the Department of Biology to put together a collection of snowdrops. With this collection, further research questions can be answered. Researcher Martijn van Zanten explains the project in this article. 

For centuries, snowdrops (Galanthus nivalis) have been popular ornamental plants in the Netherlands and are an early botanical announcement of the approaching spring. The species has been known in our country since the late Middle Ages, even though it is not a native plant. G. nivalis is found in large parts of southern, central and eastern Europe and Galanthus has a diversity hotspot in the Caucasus.

Huge populations

Snowdrop is a typical spring flower in the Netherlands. Huge populations can now be found in parks of castles, country houses and estates, such as on the estates of Amelisweerd and Oostbroek near the Botanic Gardens. It is possible to approximate how long some of the populations have been growing there. Most likely, many were planted in the period of the English landscape style.

An own collection

Together with researchers from the Department of Biology of Utrecht University, the Botanic Gardens are currently putting together a collection of snowdrops (accessions) from various castles, country houses and estates and wild accessions from the Czech Republic, Belgium, France and the Caucasus region, among others. We now have over 50 accessions, 35 of which come from country houses in the Netherlands and Belgium. The collection is slowly expanding. We are still looking for wild provenances from France and related species from the Caucasus region. We observe a lot of variation in size, flowering time and seed formation between the different accessions. It seems that estates often have their 'own population', which can vary considerably in neighbouring estates.

Answering questions

The aim is to eventually use this collection for molecular, genetic and phenotypic analyses to answer various questions, such as:

  • What is the origin of 'our' snowdrops?
  • Have populations over the years adapted to local (growing) conditions in the Netherlands? Why is the snowdrop doing so well in our country and is that because it has been genetically modified over the centuries? And if so, which genes are involved? What is the (signature) of genomic adaptation?
  • Which genes explain the enormous variation in size, flowering time and seed formation between the different accessions and can we demonstrate the functionality of those genes by, for example, expressing them in the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana? This knowledge may be of interest to plant breeders who want to efficiently select for desirable traits in bulbous plants.
  • How does snowdrop respond to climate change? By using an experimental field in which we can artificially raise the temperature, we want to find out which characteristics are influenced by temperature and which genes are involved.