Sunday, 6 April 2014

Plant of the Moment No. 20: Fritillaria meleagris – Snake's-head Fritillary

The unique snakeskin patterning of fritillary petals
It is hard to believe that the packets of shrivelled-up, brown corms that you see hanging in over-heated garden centres in early autumn can produce something so beautiful. Indeed, nothing short of a resurrection miracle would elicit signs of life from some of those packets – unless you are planning a colourful crop of mildew spores... I have always had more success with planting out pot-grown Snake's-head Fritillaries, which may be a superficially more expensive way of doing things, but it works out better in the long run when you know you have bought something that is actually alive. Similar advice applies when buying tortoises from pet shops, as a friend of ours found to her distress back in the mists of childhood, but I digress. By investing in a few healthy pot-grown plants you can found your own colony, collecting and sowing the fresh seed as soon as it is ripe in summer. It takes a few years for the grass-like seedlings to reach flowering size, but that's all part of the pleasure.

Snake's-head and Lesser Celandines

Nothing says early April in this garden like the small clumps of fritillaries flowering in the damp turf next to the top pond and in the woodland meadow. There aren't many and their rate of natural increase is barely keeping up with the annual toll of corms nibbled by mice and voles. In some previous years the unfurling flower buds have also been systematically nipped off by Pheasants (close eyes, breathe deeply and count to ten, before Googling "terrine of game"). Depradations of marauding wildlife nothwithstanding, this spring the fritillaries are putting on a fine show, reminding me of my teenage pilgrimage to the wild fritillary meadows of the Gloucestershire–Wiltshire borders. No smartphones, iPads or Facebook back then. What else was a boy to do?

Pot of 'grass' – fritillary seeds sown last summer

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