Snake charmers – Fritillaria meleagris





A very helpful article from Sarah Raven in The Telegraph –

and from Monty Don –

Some like it wet: A soggy spring can drown tulips, crocuses and daffodils, but the snakeshead fritillary will thrive in it

By Monty Don

Most spring bulbs do best in very well-drained soil – which can be a problem for those of us who garden on heavy clay. Initially, bulbs such as tulips, daffodils and crocuses do fine, but sitting in wet soil does nothing for their longevity and over the years you will find yourself replacing them far more often than a gardener on sand or chalk.

However, one of my favourite spring bulbs positively relishes damp conditions in winter and early spring. This is the common snake’s head fritillary, Fritillaria meleagris.

I first planted a batch of a hundred plants (more expensive than planting the bulbs, but more likely to succeed) down the far end of our Spring Garden, which is a narrow triangle bounded on one side by the water meadows our garden butts against.

The Snakeshead Fritillaries positively relishes in damp conditions in winter and early spring

These meadows flood often and the water inevitably spills into my garden, sometimes dramatically, and the first place to get a soaking is that far spit of Spring Garden. It does not seem to bother the fritillaries at all. In fact, it makes them feel thoroughly at home.

They are extraordinarily beautiful flowers, with pointed bonnets of flower chequered with a patchwork of mauve, pink, purple, green – and sometimes white – in various permutations, with some almost pure white and others richly purple.

They are native wildflowers (although the first record of them as a wildflower postdates their record as a garden plant by 50 years, so perhaps they are in fact a garden escapee.

If so, then they naturalised a long time ago), found naturally in wet meadows – the most famous of which is behind Oxford University’s Magdalen College, which has thousands of them flowering each spring.

My section of flooded spring garden is therefore home from home for them. The bulb goes dormant after June until August, when it grows new shoots that stop just below the surface when the nights begin to cool.

As soon as the weather warms up in spring, they start to grow fast from this poised position so that they can flower and set seed before the grass gets growing.

In this way they could – and very occasionally still do – co-exist with grazing cattle and haymaking on the same ground as long as they were not poisoned by fertiliser.

Thus only old, unreconstructed meadows have enabled them to grow freely, and hundreds of sites that formerly had them flowering abundantly have long since lost them.

One of the snake’s head fritillary’s more appreciative folk names is ‘sulky ladies’, although they have also been known as dead man’s bell, madam ugly and toad’s head. All in all, it seems that they have inspired as much revulsion as admiration, which is a remarkably strong reaction to what is, after all, simply a lovely flower.

They are the easiest of the fritillaries – members of the lily family – to grow, but there are more than 100 others to choose from. All of them, by the way, share one unlikely pollinator – the queen wasp, which is active as a solitary operator in spring.

In the same patch of my own garden I have the crown imperial, Fritillaria imperialis, a native of Kashmir, on the borders of India and Pakistan. These are dramatically different from the snake’s head, standing about 3ft tall on curiously flattened thick chocolate stems, their bright flowers hanging beneath a dreadlocked topknot of leaf.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.