Spring flowers in bloom

19 March 2012 | News story

Spring is in the air - flowers are beginning to bloom, snow is melting, plants are turning green, and Easter is around the corner. While many people are concerned with what floral arrangement to put on the dinner table, very few are aware that many European wild flowers are threatened with extinction, according to the European Red List of Vascular Plants, a project carried out by IUCN, financed by the European Commission.

The Common Snowdrop (Galanthus nivalis) is one of the first arrivals of spring, symbolizing a new start after winter. Native to many European countries and introduced to the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden, the popularity of this species is also its greatest threat, as it has a tendency to be over-collected for the horticultural trade. International trade of the Common Snowdrop is restricted by CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora), but it continues to be harvested as an ornamental plant and for use in medication and poison. Snowdrop bulbs are particularly poisonous and cause sickness if eaten (some people have confused them with onions!) However, one of the ‘poisons’ found in snowdrops, galantamine, is believed to slow the progress of Alzheimer’s disease.

“The decline of the snowdrop as identified by the European Red List assessment proves that we must make a concerted effort to preserve the beautiful plants that signal the start of spring,” says Melanie Bilz, Programme Officer, IUCN Global Species Programme. “The management and protection of important snowdrop sites will help protect and conserve this threatened plant species.”

By Easter time, massive displays of daffodils (Narcissus spp.) have emerged across Western Europe. The Latin name for daffodil was probably inspired by Narcissus, a figure from Greek mythology who fell in love with his reflection in a pool of water. The head of the daffodil is said to represent Narcissus as he bent to admire his reflection. Five Spanish species of daffodil (N. alcaracensis, N. bugei, N. longispathus, N. nevadensis and N. radinganorum) are listed as Endangered on The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™ and are threatened by the expansion of intensive grazing activities, which affects plants directly as livestock eat or trample them.

Additional threats to daffodils and other European vascular plants include the conversion of land into agricultural and urban areas, and recreational activities such as hiking, walking or skiing. Invasive species also present a threat to native European plants as they compete for space and light. For example, Carpobrotus edulis, a plant endemic to South Africa was introduced widely in the Mediterranean as an ornamental plant but it has now replaced native plants in many areas.

At the end of spring the national flower of France, the Iris, comes to life across Europe in a blaze of colour which is appropriate since it is named after the Greek goddess of rainbows. The Yellow Iris (Iris pseudacorus) is regionally extinct in Malta but categorized as Least Concern elsewhere. Found in shallow freshwater or saturated soil this plant can also be used as part of a natural water treatment process as it removes heavy metals.

“There are 20,000 – 25,000 plant species in Europe and only around 8% of these have been assessed so far,” says Jane Smart, Global Director of IUCN’s Biodiversity Conservation Group. “Assessing wild plants for the IUCN Red List will increase our knowledge of wild European plant species and facilitate the conservation planning and monitoring necessary to ensure these beautiful spring flowers continue to bloom.”

For more information about this and other European initiatives please contact:
Ana Nieto: Regional Biodiversity Conservation Officer, European Union Representative Office, IUCN t +32-2-739 3009 e Ana.NIETO@iucn.org