Gardening Magazine

Fritillaria Meleagris – The Snake’s Head Fritillary

By David Marsden @anxiousgardener

A couple of weeks ago, after months of squelch, The Priory meadow was dry enough to support the weight of the Etesia ride-on mower … as well as my added weight sitting on top.  Had I tried to use it before the ground was firm, the Etesia would have carved up the grass like a Panzer on fondant.

And so, one sunny morning, I drove the circuitous route out of the garden, through two gates, along the west pond and out to an acre of ankle-deep grass.

Fritillaria Meleagris – The Snake’s Head Fritillary

Each spring, I recut a network of pathways and mow them weekly until all of the meadow is shorn in autumn.  The paths are very visible after the meadow is cut in September (above): bright green bands curving to select rendezvous but after a spring surge of grass, they are mostly invisible.  Nevermind, I know by now where the paths should run; where to steer, where to avoid.

Fritillaria Meleagris – The Snake’s Head Fritillary

The distinctive foliage of the common spotted orchid

I keep to the same layout year after year because I’m a creature of habit … and to avoid flowering bulbs.  I still have a little leeway however, a little discretion to swerve around something special, something I want to encourage.  Like an orchid.  Or a wagtail.

Fritillaria Meleagris – The Snake’s Head Fritillary

A very good mower indeed – the Etesia Hydro 80

In November 2009, I planted 600 Fritillaria meleagris bulbs on the meadow as well as daffodils and Camassia.  The Camassia quamash has flourished, the daffodils less so.

Fritillaria Meleagris – The Snake’s Head Fritillary

It is the fritillaries that have really prospered in this their favoured habitat: wet meadow.  Wildflower meadows are far rarer than they were a hundred years ago, of course – wet ones are even rarer.  It seemed obvious to try to develop one at The Priory, on what had been a large expanse of mostly wildlife-devoid rough mown grass.

Fritillaria Meleagris – The Snake’s Head Fritillary

The snake’s head fritillary is my favorite flower but I can’t explain why.  Any more than I can explain why four is my favorite number and green my favorite color.  It just is.

Fritillaria Meleagris – The Snake’s Head Fritillary

This has been a good year for snake’s heads – better than last – but if there are colonies of several dozen, I still haven’t quite the number, quite the spectacle I expected when I slipped the bulbs into spade slits all those years ago.

Fritillaria Meleagris – The Snake’s Head Fritillary

Vita Sackville-West called the it “a sinister little flower, in the mournful color of decay.”  But then Vita Sackville-Wet was very wrong.  Mournful isn’t a word that springs into my head when I see these beautiful, delicately patterned bells quivering in an April breeze, pulling in passing bumble bees; with an occasional and very lovely white, green-lined companion.  Sinister, Ms Sackville-West?  Don’t talk nonsense.

Fritillaria Meleagris – The Snake’s Head Fritillary

There is some debate, some muttering, as to whether Fritillaria meleagris is a true UK native … or a cultivated plant which slyly cast its seed over a garden wall.  But as it’s recorded as growing wild in C17th England, it is as native to me as incomers stinging nettle and ground elder.  And of the three, I know which one I want.

Fritillaria Meleagris – The Snake’s Head Fritillary

In June, I profligately scatter my seed

Fritillaria Meleagris – The Snake’s Head Fritillary

so that, one day, there might be as many nodding, sinister plants as I could wish.  Can you tell that Vita’s comment really irks me?

Three years ago, I wrote: “The snake’s head fritillaries have been pretty good. Not fall-over-fantastic but then I’m resigned to it taking years, decades even, for them to fully colonize the meadow.”

Fritillaria Meleagris – The Snake’s Head Fritillary

I’ve now re-cut the paths for another year

Why then, knowing that, do I always hope that the display will be marvellously better than the year before?  Silly optimism?

But better a silly optimist than a silly pessimist.


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