Sunday, March 22, 2015

harbingers of spring

harbingers of spring --
snowdrops flutter in the wind
like white hummingbirds

Next to the ring of granite stones near our house, a fallen oak leaf curves back under a clump of snowdrops. The blossoms look like hummingbirds with white wings, green heads and tails. Linnaeus called these bulbous plants Galanthus nivalis. Gala comes from the Greek word for milk, anthos means flower and nivalis means snowy. The pendulous buds, which look like drops of milk, appear at the end of winter, sometimes poking up through snow cover.

Why bloom so early? As soon as it warms up enough, bees begin foraging for nectar, so these early bloomers get the first pollinators. Then the plant produces seeds with a fleshy attachment called elaiosome (√©laion means oil in Greek and soma means body), which contains fats and proteins. Foraging ants take the seeds to their nest to feed the elaiosomes to their larvae. Then they take the seeds to their waste disposal area, where they germinate. Thus the seeds get dispersed through a mutual symbiotic process called myrmecochory (from Greek myrmex, ant, and kore, dispersal).

For humans, the entire plant is poisonous if eaten in large quantities, but it has medicinal uses. The common snowdrop contains an alkaloid, galanthamine, which is used to treat Alzheimer's disease and traumatic injuries to the nervous system. So here again the plant gets dispersed through cultivation by humans, which might be called "homocochory."

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