Fritillaria Meleagris – The Snake’s Head Fritillary

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 bulk 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.

Meadow paths

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.

Common spotted orchid

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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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Vita Sackville-West called the fritillary, “a sinister little flower, in the mournful colour of decay.”  But then Vita Sackville-West was so 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.

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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 such as stinging nettle and ground elder.  And of the three, I know which one I want.

Fritillary seed

In June, I profligately scatter my seed

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so that, one day, there might be as many nodding, sinister plants as I could wish for.  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 colonise the meadow.”

Meadow mown paths

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?

Perhaps, but better a silly optimist than a silly pessimist.

Anemone nemorosa

April brings wood anemones to The Priory and about time too. Of all the wildflowers that were already here when I arrived, the gradual increase of anemones over the past ten years has given the best reward.

They have burgeoned in number using that simple – if obscure – technique of not strimming and mowing everything in sight, all year round. By leaving areas of the grounds uncut for most of the growing season, I try to encourage most wildflowers. If not ragwort, dock and thistle; then bluebell, orchid, scabious and anemone.

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In their preferred habitat – deciduous woodland with enough sunlight to coax open the flowers – Anemone nemorosa line The Priory’s driveway.  Study the flowers first thing in the morning and the petals will be furled; but as soon as the sun appears they open up their pale beauty.

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On the wooded bank below the greenhouses, there are now several hundred flowers where, ten years ago, there was but a handful.  As I only strim this north facing slope in late autumn rather than from spring onwards – as was done – they have come forth and multiplied.

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Flowering early in the year before the tree canopy shuts out the light, the plant will slowly die back as that light is cut off. But in the meantime, the anemone is perfect.

The flower has soft yellow stamens and six white petals sometimes flushed with pink; above cut palmate leaves.  The latter have, so I’ve read, a musky smell.  This suggests one of the plant’s common names, smell fox.  I can’t vouch whether that is an accurate name, but then I rarely get on my knees to sniff low-lying foliage … nor indeed sniff foxes.  Still, it’s a good name and better than fox smell would have been.

Wood anemone

Linda. Linda, do come out to the garden and smell my smell fox, do.”

In England, wood anemones spread mainly by rhizome (underground stem) rather than seed.  I’m surprised that I haven’t thought to transplant pieces of rhizome to help speed up its colonization and introduce the plant to new areas. It is a slow, patient spreader (though Wikipedia says otherwise) and I could easily have helped it to do so faster.  There is a spot under oak and ash on the meadow which would suit them beautifully.

As well as smell fox, Anemone nemorosa is called wood crowfoot, lady’s nightcap, helmet flower and thimble weed. Welsh has it as Blodyn gwynt.  In French, it is Anémone des bois, in German Buschwindröschen and in Dutch Bosanemoon.  In Iceland, it is called Skógarsóley but I think Finnish noses ahead in the naming stakes with Valkovuokko.* (Pronunciation help not on offer).

Another English name for the wood anemone is wind flower which is easily explained when you see a carpet of them nodding in the breeze.


Like this slowly increasing white carpet on the east lawn.  Other than a path through to the bridge, I don’t mow it during spring and summer.

My time at The Priory is drawing to a close – and I shall write more about that in the coming weeks.  But after I have left, I hope that one of my legacies will be the continued spread of smell fox.

*Thanks to Encyclopedia of Life for these names.