By Mariecia Fraser
We’ve just had the first paper from the daffodil project published – hurray! But why are we so interested in daffodils? Well, it’s because they are a source of a plant chemical called galanthamine (gal/anth/amine), which is used to produce the pharmaceutical product galantamine (gal/ant/amine). Galantamine is an approved treatment for Alzeimer’s disease. It isn’t a cure (the world is still waiting for one of those) but it can help alleviate the symptoms and slow down progression of the disease. However, at the moment it is estimated that the global demand for the product is ten-times greater than the supply.
A whole group of plants, including other garden favourites such as snowdrops and snowflakes, produces galanthamine as a chemical defence. However, of these, only daffodils have the potential to be cropped, and the UK is already the world leader in terms of the supply of cut daffodils and bulbs (yes, really – no, not the Netherlands). But while production for the cut flower and bulb markets is concentrated on better quality soils in coastal areas, there could be big advantages to growing daffodils for galanthamine in upland areas. The plants produce the chemical in response to stress, and growing in poorer soils in cold, wet conditions could help trigger higher concentrations.
But of course we can’t just go ploughing up hillsides to plant daffodils without risking serious environmental damage. So our project is taking a completely different tack and evaluating the potential of sowing lines of daffodils into long-term upland permanent pasture and then harvesting the green growth in spring. Our first experiment tested this approach in small-scale plots at five different locations. These ranged in altitude from 250 m (850 ft) to 430 m (1400 ft) above seas level, all on poorer soils. The good news was that the concentrations of the galanthamine were higher than reported in previous lowland and lab-based studies. However, the biomass yields were lower than we were hoping for. As a result, sets of new experimental plots planted up last October will be exploring the extent to which different agronomic factors affect the amount of harvestable material available. Without this information it’s not possible to weigh up the true economic potential of it all as yet.