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 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.

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.

Fritillaria meleagris (1)

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 (3)

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 (7)

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.

Fritillaria meleagris (10)

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 (9)

Vita Sackville-West called the it “a sinister little flower, in the mournful colour of decay.”  But then Vita Sackville-West 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 (8)

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.

Fritillary seed

In June, I profligately scatter my seed

Fritillaria meleagris (2)

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?

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

Wildflowers On The South Downs

I’m not terribly fond of petrol mowers at the best of times but when they break-down repeatedly, I think them insufferable.   If only they would listen to reason and I could patiently explain how simple their duties really are.

Buttercups

At least a faulty mower induced forced-stop to mowing at The Old Forge gave me a compensation of buttercups;

Speedwell

and a patch of blue speedwell salved – a bit – my disgust at uppity machinery.

Flax South Downs

July 2014

As pretty as flowering lawns are however, for big colour impact on the Downs you must lift up thine eyes unto the hills.   In summer, fields are turned golden by ripening wheat; or the powder blue of flowering flax.

Poppies South Downs (2)

In July 2013, I was wowed by a remarkable field poppy display.

Poppies South Downs

Mesmerised, I took far more photos than I ever needed (or published – so here’s another two).  The sheer amount of flower hasn’t been repeated since; though poppies aren’t the only wild-flower to daub the skyline above the ‘Forge.

DSM_1984

In May, the field next to the ‘poppy field’ glows from a mile away.

Flower Meadow South Downs (2)

At a distance one might mistake it for rape but no, it’s buttercups again.

Flower Meadow South Downs (1)

Thousands of buttercups; with cowslips

Flower Meadow South Downs (4)

and some yellow rattle too.

Daisies South Downs (1)

From my new front door, a short walk leads to pasture

Daisies South Downs (2)

and small paddocks smothered by buttercups and daisies.

Daisies South Downs

And I instantly recall  a primary school hymn, ‘Daisies are our silver‘.

DSC_0026

About the time I was singing ‘Daisies are our silver’ – for the first time

Almost 50 years later, the first verse still comes easily and I sang it again, lustily like a Welsh miner.  (There was no-one about).

Daisies are our silver,
Buttercups our gold:
This is all the treasure
We can have or hold.

DSM_1798

As well as charming to a five-year old boy with a nascent gardening gene, the words proved prophetic too – given the chances of me ever owning a chest of treasure.

Flower Meadow South Downs (3)

Since I first visited fifteen years ago, these paddocks have been grazed by ponies and horses and, in one case, by the same pony – despite the toxicity of buttercups.  (My equine dietary expertise isn’t up to much and no doubt some horse owners will be dismayed at buttercup-rich, poisonous pasture.  I’ll just add that in East Sussex, in spring, it is a very common sight).

May South Downs

Higher up, a larger field is burnished too; mirroring distant blocks of rape.

Cowslips South Downs

Only here, the predominate species isn’t buttercup but cowslip; a colossal number of cowslips.  Which doesn’t match my usual view of them at all: an occasional hedgerow flower or a few individuals lining a country lane.

I hope that July 2016 will see a return to magnificent poppy-red splodges above the ‘Forge.*  But if not, that’s OK.  I know that one year they’ll be back; and will again force people to pull over, park and whip out their camera phones – as they did in 2013.  In the meantime, buttercups and cowslips have magically transformed the Downs to cloths of gold; far more gold than I should have or hold.

oooOOOooo

The Lyrics of ‘Daisies Are Our Silver’

I rarely meet anyone who knows the hymn I sang as a young boy, but for those of you who do, (but like me, can only remember the first verse) here are all the lyrics.  (I’m pleased speedwell gets a mention, if not cowslips).

Daisies are our silver,
Buttercups our gold:
This is all the treasure
We can have or hold.

Raindrops are our diamonds
And the morning dew;
While for shining sapphires
We’ve the speedwell blue.

These shall be our emeralds
Leaves so new and green;
Roses make the reddest
Rubies ever seen.

God, who gave these treasures
To your children small,
Teach us how to love them
And grow like them all.

Make us bright as silver:
Make us good as gold;
Warm as summer roses
Let our hearts unfold.

Gay as leaves in April,
Clear as drops of dew
God, who made the speedwell,
Keep us true to you.

The words to ‘Daisies are our silver‘ were written by Joyce Maxtone Graham, under the pseudonym, Jan Struther.  She also wrote the hymn, ‘Lord of all Hopefulness‘ (which surely you do remember?) and the novel, Mrs Miniver – one of the most beautifully written books I know.

*It didn’t.

Save