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.

Steady As She Goes

The garden is sailing through spring so quickly.  Though I’ve taken a few photos, I’ve not had the time to show you all of the Priory’s April charms.  Here’s a quick retro peek at a little of what has grabbed my attention and maybe elicited an “Ahhh.”

fritillaria meleagris

The snake’s head fritillaries (Fritillaria meleagris) 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.

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But I do have clumps!

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And even if some of the flowers are pecked by


him and his chums,

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they seem to thrive.

Fritillary seed

In a couple of months the seed heads will ripen and readily crack open.  At that point, I collect the seed and liberally cast it where numbers are still sparse.  (Profligately throwing fistfuls of fritillary seed about is one of my favourite pastimes.  Now you know).

Erythronium pagoda

I’m not embarrassed to announce:  I’m in love with my solitary Erythronium pagoda.  Unlike the fritillaries, it hasn’t spread and this is the only one to emerge from half a dozen bulbs I put in a few years back.   If it can be bothered to flower every year, the least I can do is bother to walk over and admire it.

Cherry blossom

Blossom cheers up the gardens.


We’re blessed to have a handful of mature cherry trees at the Priory.  They produce fruit too – not that you’d notice.  The birds strip them far too quickly for me to get a mouthful.


One of my favourite trees at the Priory is an amelanchier.  (I don’t know the variety but suspect it’s A. x Grandiflora ‘Ballerina’.  Anyone?).

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The tree produces suckers which I used to remove.  But I stopped cutting them off (life is so short, isn’t it?) and clipped them to a shape instead.  I thought I’d make a feature of them … a pot?  A base?  A stand?  Call it what you will.

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But when it too flowered, I’ll happily admit to an “ahhh” (and made a mental note to remove that ivy).

Tulip Spring Green (2)

Don’t you just love a tulip that comes back year after year?  Here’s one that has done just that – Tulip ‘Spring Green’.  This subtle beauty is easily lost amongst tall, verdant, herbaceous growth but here it sings out against an old lichened wall.

Tulip Spring Green

And rewards close regard.

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I never saw the point of spiraea.  Until, that is, I bothered to read up about it.  Now that I know it flowers on old wood and pruning back hard in winter or spring is a BAD idea, it flowers freely.  I’ll chalk that one down to experience.  Again I don’t know the variety.  Spiraea thunbergii do you think?


Swaying about in a breeze with an underplanting of forget-me-nots and daffs, it does grab my attention and brings me to a halt.  And actually, you can’t ask much more of a plant than that.  Can you?


I posted recently about the bank below the greenhouses and prattled on about how pretty it is.  Well since that post, and left to its own devices, it’s got better still – mostly smothered with wildflowers.  It fair sparkles.


Above the bank, its new leaf shimmering, is the young dogwood hedge.  I planted it to part-screen the ‘houses and this is only its second year.


Isn’t it vibrant?  Alternate green and red-barked cornus show off their respective leaf colour too – which is an unlooked-for bonus.  I hadn’t anticipated that … only the winter stem colour.  I do like an unlooked-for bonus.

Kerria japonica (2)

What about Kerria japonica?  Bit blousy?  Bit naff?  Possibly both but I’m fond of the yellow pom-poms anyway.  This particular plant went in several years ago as a tiny, barely rooted bit of stem tugged, without ceremony, from my garden.

Kerria japonica

This is its first proper flowering and I’m rather pleased.  I’ve worked in gardens where kerria is a brutish, twelve-foot high thicket.  Mine sits beneath a large alder, its feet amongst nettle and ground elder.  Brute away my friend.  Brute away.


Way up on the drive (several hundred yards from the house) is a forsythia.  When we cut the mixed hedging in July, we cut this too.  Quite hard – otherwise it shoots out over the narrow tarmac.  July is a little late for cutting forsythia (it ought to be done straight after flowering) and this one usually sulks the following spring.  But this year it has flowered quite nicely.  (With another cherry tree, unnoticed for most of year, shouting, “Me, me, me!” behind).

Magnolia Stellata

Sticking my head through the beech hedge for a voyeuristic glimpse of Magnolia stellata

The gardens are finally coming to life – now the won’t-be-rushed Priory is finally under way.  She is a tardy lass.  But I can forgive her that.