Mediterranean treasures under threat: why the French snowflake is disappearing

French snowflake
Wikimedia Commons

Since 12 February, you can spot its drooping white flowers on one of Monaco’s national stamps. A part of the Principality’s local heritage, the dainty French snowflake has been declared an endangered species by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and is the focus of Monaco’s latest conservation plan.

From afar, it could almost be mistaken for a snowdrop. The French snowflake, otherwise known as Acis nicaeensis, can still be admired in a few rare spots of the French Riviera. The flower, endemic to the region, does not grow anywhere else.

“The plant can be found in the area that stretches from the Col de Vence to the French-Italian border, particularly towards the towns of Menton and Ventimiglia,” explains research professor Frédéric Médail, member of the Mediterranean Institute of Biodiversity and Ecology (IMBE).

“The flower can grow anywhere between the shore and 1000 meters above sea level,” explains Médail, a specialist in Mediterranean flora. The French snowflake is a remarkably resilient bulbous plant. “It’s actually a very capricious flower,” says the scientist with a smile. The flower only blossoms under specific weather conditions, he tells us, and has tested his patience more than once. “In the springs that follow exceptionally dry winters, for instance, the French snowflake is difficult to spot, which therefore also makes it rather difficult to study.”

The species has been able to preserve itself against all odds

French snowflake
© V. Gaglio

Its survival? “A miracle”

“Since the end of the 19th century, the species has stopped growing in eleven different locations,” explains Frédéric Médail. “This includes three locations in Monaco. For instance, it used to grow in Moneghetti. Some flowers, however, can still be spotted on the Sainte-Dévote cliffs,” adds the researcher. The highly endangered plant currently grows in only forty-two different locations, which is “without a doubt a concerning situation”. Urbanisation and the ensuing deterioration of the plant’s natural habitat remain the main cause of the species’ decline. Since the 1950s, the region has become an ever more attractive destination and this rapid urbanisation has taken its toll on local natural environment. “The Rock of Monaco is a small island surrounded by an incredibly urbanised area,” says Médail. “The species has been able to preserve itself against all odds. Its survival is a miracle if I ever saw one.”

In addition to urbanisation, the scientist warns that the French snowflake faces the threat of genetic impoverishment and invasive exotic species. “At the moment, a bulbous plant called Freesia, a flower that originates in Africa, threatens the survival of the French snowflakes that grow on the Rock of Monaco.”

French snowflake stamp Monaco
OETP Monaco

Monaco launches a replanting effort

To ensure the survival of the flower, the Government of Monaco has begun a large-scale replanting effort. “We remain vigilant,” says Ludovic Aquilina, who is in charge of the Natural Heritage Division of the Principality’s Environmental Department. “We want to improve our understanding of the species, restore its natural habitat and strengthen its population.” Just last October, more than 900 seedlings were replanted on the rocky slopes beneath the Palace, as well as in the gardens of Saint-Martin. Several participants were involved in the operation, including the National Mediterranean Botanical Conservatory and the IMBE.

Prince Albert II of Monaco has also been part of the initiative, assisting with the replanting programme of the almost 900 individual bulbs whose seeds were collected in 2019 and subsequently cultivated on the island of Porquerolles, before being brought back to their original habitat.