Skip to main content

You are here

Facebook icon
Pinterest icon
Twitter icon

Leucojum vernum (spring snowflake)

The spring snowflake is a popularly cultivated bulbous plant with delicate white flowers, and belongs to the same family as the snowdrops.

Spring snowflakes at Kew Gardens

Leucojum vernum (spring snowflake)

Species information

Scientific name: 

Leucojum vernum L.

Common name: 

spring snowflake (English); nivéole du printemps (French); campanelle comuni (Italian); Frühlings-Knotenblume, Grosses Schneeglöckchen, Märzenglöckchen (German).

Conservation status: 

Not yet assessed according to IUCN criteria.

Habitat: 

Damp woods, thickets, hedge banks and meadows; usually in hilly areas and on calcareous soils.

Key Uses: 

Ornamental, medicinal.

Known hazards: 

All parts of the plant are poisonous, especially the bulbs.

Taxonomy

Subclass: 
Superorder: 
Lilianae
Order: 
Asparagales
Family: 
Amaryllidaceae
Genus: Leucojum

About this species

The spring snowflake was described as Leucojum vernum by the renowned Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus in 1753. The scientific name means ‘spring white violet’ (Leucojum means ‘white violet’ and vernum means ‘spring’). L. vernum is a widely cultivated, hardy, frost-tolerant plant, notable as a good early nectar and pollen source for bees.

Although both snowflakes (Leucojum species) and snowdrops (Galanthus species) belong to the family Amaryllidaceae, they have clear differentiating characters. While snowflakes have six equal tepals (petals and sepals that are similar to each other), in snowdrops the three inner tepals are shorter and broader than the three outer tepals.

Genus: 
Leucojum

Discover more

Geography and distribution

The spring snowflake is native to Central Europe (extending to Belgium, the Pyrenees, northern Italy, and Bosnia and Herzegovina) and has become naturalised in other regions, such as the British Isles and North America.

Herbarium specimen of Leucojum vernum

Description

Overview: The spring snowflake has small, underground bulbs up to 3 cm in diameter.

Leaves: The leaves measure 10-25 x 5-25 mm, have ligules (leaf sheath projections) and appear during the flowering period.

Flowers: The scape (flower-stalk) is 12-35 cm long, usually exceeding the leaves in length, with a central cavity and two narrow wings. The flowers are generally solitary, rarely in pairs. The spathe (sheathing bract) measures 2.5-4 cm in length and has one valve. The perianth segments (petals and sepals) are 1.5-2.5 cm long and are white with a green or yellow spot just below the thickened apex. The stigma (female part) is club-shaped and slightly longer than the stamens (male parts).

Seeds: The whitish seeds measure around 7 mm and have a strophiole (outgrowth associated with animal dispersal) that is attractive to ants, which are allegedly the dispersal agents.

Leucojum vernum flowers from February to April, and the seeds ripen in July. The flowers are hermaphrodite (having both male and female organs) and are pollinated by bees.

The two recognised varieties are readily distinguished: L. vernum var. vernum has green spots on its tepals and is widely distributed, while L. vernum var. carpathicum has yellowish spots on its tepals and is restricted to the Carpathian Mountains. 

Kew research leads to reclassification

Recent research at Kew has suggested that eight species previously included in the genus Leucojum should be moved to the genus Acis.

Two species, L. vernum and L. aestivum (summer snowflake), remain in the genus Leucojum; they are characterised by wide leaves, flowers with markings, hollow scapes and a widespread distribution across Europe and the northern Mediterranean.

In contrast, Acis species have narrow leaves, flowers without markings, solid scapes, a west Mediterranean and North African distribution and most species are narrow endemics (restricted to a very small area).

Uses

Like Leucojum aestivum (summer snowflake), Leucojum vernum is an attractive ornamental and grows well in damp grassland or woodland situations, where it can become naturalised. Both species tolerate waterlogged soils, and can be planted to good effect on the margins of ponds or alongside streams in the wilder parts of a garden.

Numerous species in the family Amaryllidaceae contain antiviral alkaloids that can be used for medicinal purposes. Some studies have suggested that the bulbs of L. vernum contain alkaloids with high anti-retroviral properties against the HIV-1 virus.

Millennium Seed Bank: Seed storage

Kew's Millennium Seed Bank Partnership aims to save plant life world wide, focusing on plants under threat and those of most use in the future. Seeds are dried, packaged and stored at a sub-zero temperature in our seed bank vault.

Description of seeds: Average 1,000 seed weight = 12.04 g
Number of seed collections stored in the Millennium Seed Bank: One

Spring snowflake at Kew

Spring snowflakes can be seen growing in the Woodland Garden (situated around the Temple of Aeolus) at Kew from February to April.

Dried and spirit-preserved specimens of Leucojum vernum are held in the Herbarium, one of the behind-the-scenes areas of Kew. The details of some of these specimens, including an image, can be seen in the online Herbarium Catalogue.

View details and images of specimens

References and credits

Aeschimann, D. & Heitz, C. (2005). Index synonymique de la Flore de Suisse et territoires limitrophes (ISFS). Doc. Flor. Helv. 2: 1-323.

Dunn, S. T. (1905). Alien Flora of Britain. West, Newman & Co., London.

Harris, J. G. & Woolf Harris, M. (2001). Plant Identification Terminology. Spring Lake Publishing, Spring Lake, Utah.

Huxley, A., Griffiths, M. & Levy, M. (eds) (1992). The New Royal Horticultural Society Dictionary of Gardening. Vol. 3 (L to Q): 57-58. Macmillan Press, London.

Lledó, M.D., Davis, A.P., Crespo, M.B., Chase, M.W. & Fay, M.F. (2004). Phylogenetic analysis of Leucojum and Galanthus (Amaryllidaceae) based on plastid matK and nuclear ribosomal spacer (ITS) DNA sequences and morphology. Plant Systematics and Evolution 246: 223-243.

Mabberley, D.J. (2006). Mabberley’s Plant-book: a Portable Dictionary of Plants, their Classification and Uses, 3rd Edition. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Meerow, A.W. & Snijman, D.A. (1998). Amaryllidaceae. In: The Families and Genera of Vascular Plants, ed. K. Kubitzki, pp. 83-110. Springer-Verlag, Berlin Heidelberg.

Plants for a Future (2010). Leucojum vernum. Accessed on 6 December 2010.

Sims, M. D. (1818). Leucojum vernum var. carpathicum. Curtis's Bot. Mag. 45: t. 1993.

Szlávik, L., Gyuris, Á., Minárovits, J., Forgo, P., Molnár, J. & Hohmann, J. (2004). Alkaloids from Leucojum vernum and antiretroviral activity of Amaryllidaceae alkaloids. Planta Medica. 70: 871-873.

Webb, D. A. (1980). Leucojum. In: Flora Europaea Volume 5, ed. T.G. Tutin, V.H. Heywood, N.A. Burges, D.M. Moore, D.H. Valentine, S.M. Walters & D.A. Webb, pp. 76-77. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

World Checklist of Selected Plant Families (2010). Leucojum vernum. The Board of Trustees of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. Available online (accessed on 20 November 2010)

Kew Science Editor: Anna Trias Blasi
Copyediting: Emma Tredwell

While every effort has been taken to ensure that the information contained in these pages is reliable and complete, the notes on hazards, edibility and suchlike included here are recorded information and do not constitute recommendations. No responsibility will be taken for readers’ own actions.

Full website terms and conditions

Related Links

Intoxicated by Kew

Mind altering plants arrive at Kew this autumn. Book online to save 10%

Intoxication Season branded promo

Courses at Kew

Kew offers a variety of specialist training courses in horticulture, conservation and plant science.

Students learn about plant taxonomy and identification

Why People Need Plants

A compelling book from Kew Publishing that explores the crucial role that plants play in the everyday lives of all of us.

image of book cover