Every Wednesday, I hope to find a new ‘weed’ to investigate. My only criterion will be that I will not have deliberately planted the subject of our inquiry. Who knows what we will find…..
Dear Readers, snake’s head fritillary is my favourite spring bulb. I am exceedingly fond of snakes, and so the strange scaly pattern on the purple flowers enthralls me. I love the elegance of the pure white flowers. I love the nodding heads, which only reveal their beauty if you turn them over.
However, it’s fair to say that the plant has an unfortunate reputation. One alternative name was ‘Leper Lily’, as the flowers are said to be the same shape as the bells that lepers had to carry to announce themselves. Vita Sackville-West called it ‘a sinister little flower, in the mournful colour of decay.’ As with many other flowers of a nodding habit, they were said to be hanging their heads in sorrow at Christ’s crucifixion.
Well, harrumph to all that. The fritillary family contains the only truly chequered flowers that I know (but do remind me of others if you can think of them!) Both parts of the Latin name for snake’s head fritillary (Fritillaria meleagris) refer to this feature: the Fritillaria part refers to either the Latin word for dice (fritillus) or (more likely to my mind) the word frittillo, which means a table for chess-playing (thanks to The Poison Garden website for this insight). This is also the root derivation for the name of the fritillary group of butterflies.
The meleagris species name means ‘spotted like a guineafowl’.
According to my Harraps Wild Flowers book, snake’s head fritillary were first recorded in the UK in 1578 (they are native to mainland Europe and Asia), but were not reported in the wild until 1736. However, there is a view that the plants are actually native, growing originally on the floodplains that extended from the Rhine and included the Thames before the opening up of the North Sea in about 5500 BC. They are now a plant of unimproved meadow which occasionally floods, a vanishingly rare habitat, and are considered to be Nationally Scarce. Richard Mabey, in ‘Flora Britannica’, mentions a few sites where the plants can be seen in quantity, including North Meadow in Cricklade,Wiltshire. He describes this meadow thus:
North Meadow (now a National Nature Reserve) is an ancient common, and what is known as Lammas Land. Its 44 acres are shut up for hay on 13 February each year until the hay harvest (apportioned by lot) some time in July. On old Lammas Day, 12 August, it become the common pasture of the Borough of Cricklade, and any resident of the town may put up to ten head of horses or cattle on it, or (after 12 September) 20 head of sheep. As far as is known, this system of land tenure has continued unchanged for more than 800 years, and the show at North Meadow may be the best evidence that the fritillary is a native species.’
Whatever their provenance, snake’s head fritillaries are certainly widely naturalised in many places, such as here in St Pancras and Islington cemetery, where they are outgrowing their original planting site and heading off in to the woods. I have some in my garden as well, where they don’t seem to mind the clay soil and the shade.
Although the snake’s head fritillary is such an exotic and enigmatic plant, it appears not to have been used medicinally – maybe its association with lepers was too strong for it to be considered useful. It is also poisonous, though there are no accounts of anybody tucking into a bulb and doing themselves a damage as there are with daffodils. However, the plant is celebrated as the County Plant of Oxfordshire (due to Magdalen College Meadow being an important snake’s head fritillary site), and also as the provincial plant of Uppland in Sweden. And furthermore, it is also celebrated by me. This most curious plant cheers me up whenever I look at it, in much the same way as I am delighted when a new house spider turns up or when I discover an unexpected caterpillar in the lettuce. I find its snakiness a refreshing change from all the wholesome bulbs that are bursting forth at this time of year, and it reminds me that something (or somebody) doesn’t have to be pretty to be beautiful.
Photo One – By Bob – Picasa Web Albums, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=12365512
Photo Two – By James Lindsey at Ecology of Commanster, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1680620
All other photos copyright Vivienne Palmer