Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..
Dear readers, most of the plants that I write about in the Wednesday Weed are not unusual: they are the kind of flowers that might crop up in any urban area, and are all the more precious for their resilience and unexpected beauty. But I was astonished to be led to this plant by my botanical friend. It was growing in a damp corner of St Pancras and Islington cemetery, all on its own and far from any graves. Known as Loddon Lily or Summer Snowflake, you might initially mistake it for a Snowdrop with its white flowers, each petal kissed with green. But a closer look shows that the structure of the flower is quite different.
There are two species of Snowflakes in the UK: the Spring Snowflake (Leucojum vernum), which is not native and which normally has only one flower head per stem, and the Loddon Lily (or Summer Snowflake), which has multiple heads and is generally considered to be native, although it is also cultivated, which complicates matters somewhat. The plant is named for the river Loddon in Berkshire – the seedpods of the plant can inflate, which means that they can be dispersed by streams and rivers, and accounts for the thick stands of Loddon Lily on the riverbank. The plant is so beautiful that it is the County Plant of Berkshire – Geoffrey Grigson, who wrote a book called ‘The Englishman’s Flora’ (1958) amongst many, many other works on natural history, described the Summer Snowflake thus:
‘White flowers hanging in severe purity from long stems’.
Who knew that we even had County Plants? To find out what yours is (if you live in the UK), have a look at the Plantlife site here and click on your area. One thing that gave me a little pause when I came to investigate this plant was that it was in flower in mid-March. All my books tell me that it shouldn’t come into flower until April or May. As usual, the plant appears not to have read them. However, my botanists’ group was unanimous in their identification of the plant, and some reported early flowering in their ‘patches’ too. Maybe our mild winter (in the south of the UK at any rate) has encouraged the plants into early bloom. This is much appreciated by the early bees that are just about beginning to appear now.
The inside of the Loddon Lily flower is a combination of white, green and gold. Notice that you can see the green mark inside the flower as well as outside (another thing that distinguishes it from the Snowdrop).
According to Richard Mabey’s Flora Britannica, the Summer Snowflake has been used to adorn church altars, and in the May Day celebrations, though there is some evidence that the cut flowers have an obnoxious smell. Best to leave them where they are, I think. It’s sad how often blooms that look wonderful on the plant turn to sad, wilted objects when they’re picked.
Summer Snowflake has not escaped the attentions of the pharmaceutical industry. In Bulgaria, it is harvested on an industrial scale to extract a chemical called Galanthamine, used to make drugs for the treatment of Alzheimer’s Disease. A scientific study by L. Georivaa has shown that the bulbs which contain the chemical also contain a very variable range of other helpful compounds, and recommends the better management of wild populations and the careful cultivation of the plants, both to ensure a sustainable supply and to provide time to look at the other uses that these compounds might have. You might think that this would be common sense, but as we know, there is a universal tendency by big business to kill the goose that laid the golden egg. Let’s hope that we can develop a reciprocal relationship with this elegant plant, whereby we make use of its gifts without wiping it off whole swathes of the planet. It doesn’t seem a lot to ask.