Snake's Head Fritillary (Fritillaria meleagris) comes mainly in reptilian mauve and its curious markings and fabulous shape are best seen in green grass by the thousand. Finding fritillary meadows can be difficult; much better to make a mini-meadow of your own. Here's how:
Photographs by Kendra Wilson except where noted.
Fritillaries do well in heavy soil, with semi-shade or full sun. For once, there's no need to add lots of grit for drainage when planting these bulbs. In Prince Charles' garden at Highgrove, unsustainable tulips were replaced with fritillaries, in the hope of replicating local meadows in Gloucestershire. But the ground had been too exquisitely prepared, with too much drainage, and the fritillaries were having none of it.
Fritillaria meleagris is not only associated with snakes. It takes its Latin name from a chequer board and the spotty feathers of guinea fowl. I think it looks like a tweed skirt. The pale version is creamy white, less common in the wild. If you look closely the little squares are just visible, like a water mark.
To replicate a meadow feel, plant as many fritillaries as you can afford. Do this soon. Also known in the past as Chequered Lilies and Leper's Bells, frits need to be planted deep, 6-8" and given some space around them. The bulbs are enjoyed by mice and squirrels, so the deeper the better. The blooms are picked off by pheasants so—you can see there are a few hazards in the life cycle of this wildflower. All good reasons to plant as many as possible. For UK readers, 100 Fritillary meleagris bulbs are available at Bloms Bulbs £26.25. For US readers, a mixture of 25 Fritillary meleagris bulbs are available at Whiteflower Farm for $27.95. Photograph by Steve Franklin, via Flickr.
Ancient fritillary meadows are usually found on flood plains, near a river. The ratio of purple to white flowers varies between locations. The darkly-spotted water meadows around Magdalen College, Oxford, shown here in May, are among the most celebrated and are open for one Sunday a year. Photograph by Andrew Johnson, via Flickr.
Of course you don't have to have a meadow. You can treat fritillaries as garden flowers, mingling with the blues and pale colors of other spring bulbs. This planting from Sissinghurst is a cultivated version of an imagined wilderness outside the castle walls.
For a wild flower, the glamorous Snake's Head Fritillary steps into a wilder garden environment with some ease. It needs to be planted with subtlety so that it doesn't get lost.
Establishing a fritillary meadow is a bit like planting trees. Be patient and enjoy small annual gains. In the 1920s, Nancy Lancaster scattered a few bulbs around the boggy driveway at Kelmarsh Hall in Northamptonshire (Above). As a prologue to the house the display is pretty spectacular in spring, with primroses preceding them and bluebells and buttercups following on after. Her vision is what we see today.
Need help with Gardening 101? Learn How to Plant a Bulb.