The snake’s head fritillary is one of the most exquisite jewels in the treasure house of British wild flowers. Its linear grey-green leaves are followed in spring by nodding heads sometimes of pure white, or more frequently marked with a delicate chequerboard pattern in shades of purple. Sadly, this is a sight that has become too infrequent in the wild, and to help preserve this beauty, plants raised from seed in the nursery at Rosemoor have been successfully naturalised in grass around the old gnarled oak tree in the Lake Field.
- Common name
- Snake’s head fritillary, guinea flower, chequer lily
- Height & spread
- 30cm (12in) x 5-8cm (2-3in)
- Bulbous perennial
- Humus-rich, moisture-retentive but well-drained
- Full sun or partial shade
- Fully hardy
This is a genus of approximately 100 species of bulbous perennials. They are distributed throughout the temperate regions of the northern hemisphere, particularly the Mediterranean, Asia and North America. They occupy a range of habitats from woodland to open meadows and high screes.
The majority bloom in spring, with flowers that are generally bell-shaped and pendant. The leaves are usually linear or lance-shaped. The name comes from the Latin word fritillus, a dicebox, from the spotted markings on the flowers of F. meleagris, which are suggestive of a dice-board.
This species has alternate, sharply pointed, grey-green, linear leaves, 6-13cm (2.5-5in) long.
The flowers, produced in spring, usually solitary but sometimes paired, are pendant, square-shouldered bell shaped, up to 4.5cm (1.75in) long and white, purple or pinkish-purple with characteristic checked markings.
The name meleagris means ‘spotted like a guinea fowl’. It is found growing naturally from southern England to western Russia. This species is suitable for rock gardens, raised beds or woodland gardens. F. meleagris var. unicolor subvar. alba has white flowers. F. meleagris var. unicolour subvar. alba ’Aphrodite’ has white petals with green veining.
- Handle the delicate bulbs carefully, and plant at four times their own depth. They prefer fertile, well-drained soil and damp summers.
- Prone to attack by slugs and lily beetles.
- Sow seed in a cold frame in autumn. Expose to winter cold until germination in spring, then transfer to a cold greenhouse.
- Divide offsets, or collect and sow ‘rice-grain’ bulbils in late summer.