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English Gardens: The Wild Fritillary Meadows at Oxford University

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English Gardens: The Wild Fritillary Meadows at Oxford University

May 11, 2018

There is a kind of cult around Fritillaria meleagris—the snake’s head fritillary—to do with its looks and its name and the fact that the kind of garden in which it thrives is not necessarily the kind of garden you’d like to have. Ideally, everything would be underwater for at least part of the winter.

Fritillaries look fine in a little collection under the dripping eaves of a house but for the full spectacle, with a lot of atmosphere thrown in, prepare to pay £5 for entrance into Magdalen College, in Oxford, England.

Photography by Jim Powell, for Gardenista.

Canada geese walk anticlockwise around Addison&#8\2\17;s Walk at Magdalen College.
Above: Canada geese walk anticlockwise around Addison’s Walk at Magdalen College.

Through the Porter’s Lodge and past some medieval cloisters and Gothic Revival quads, a bridge crosses a tributary of the River Cherwell. Magdalen is one of the grandest as well as most welcoming of Oxford colleges; tourists are not herded around being told where they can’t go. Instead we are left to wander, observing discreet notices about private stairs or libraries.

There is an enormous amount of green space in this city, and Magdalen College is surrounded by its own meadows and a deer park, while rubbing shoulders with the botanical garden across the road, which in turn looks onto a cricket pitch. All of this is gently intersected by water.

A view of the cloister across the water meadow at Magdalen College.
Above: A view of the cloister across the water meadow at Magdalen College.

Addison’s Walk, which encircles an island of fritillaries known as the Water Meadow, is named after Joseph Addison. His time at Magdalen writing Latin poetry was eclipsed by a glittering career as a man of letters, politician, and energetic member of the intellectual Kit-Cat Club, cofounding The Tatler and The Spectator along the way.

The fritillaries themselves are part of a series of water meadows along the rivers of Oxfordshire and Wiltshire that are traditionally managed with grazing in summer, while the fritillaries’ bulbs are dormant. At Magdalen, the deer come in from the Grove, adjacent to the college. The meadow is entirely fenced off.

Fritillaries that have escaped the boundary of the meadow onto the bank opposite.
Above: Fritillaries that have escaped the boundary of the meadow onto the bank opposite.

Addison’s Walk is pleasantly wooded and makes for an unhurried, mile-long wander. A more recent alumnus of Magdalen College was C. S. Lewis, author of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. In his atheist days, he went for an evening stroll around Addison’s Walk with J.R.R. Tolkein and another (not-so-famous) friend, Hugo Dyson. During the course of the night, if not the walk, the beginnings of a religious conversion stirred.

Guinea-hen patterning on Fritillaria meleagris.
Above: Guinea-hen patterning on Fritillaria meleagris.

“I heard in Addison’s Walk a bird sing clear,” Lewis wrote in a poem later in life (“What the Bird Said Early in the Year”). The next line is pertinent to anyone who continually lives in hope in the English climate: “This year the summer will come true.”

On the day of our visit, temperatures were pushing 80 degrees, which is not only unusual in spring but quite at odds with the sultry looks of the chequered tulip, leper’s lily, guinea-hen flower, call it what you will. Fritillaries do not need the glare of a midday sun: They suit a slightly overcast sky because then they show up.

Fritillaries at dawn.
Above: Fritillaries at dawn.

The “snake’s head” part of the common name clearly refers to the bud stage, while meleagris alludes to the flower’s pattern when fully open, resembling the spots of a guinea fowl.

A goose shows more interest in the grass than in the delicious spread of flowers.
Above: A goose shows more interest in the grass than in the delicious spread of flowers.

A meadow of fritillaries can be difficult to establish because the petals are attractive to pigeons and pheasants, and the bulbs are carried away by mice. Safety in numbers will eventually prevail (in soil that does not dry out in summer) with extra depth in planting.

In a slightly grumpy allusion to fritillaries in her epic poem The Land, Vita Sackville-West complains of their “staining” the ground, with looks that are “sulky-dark and quaint.” This only adds to a mysterious allure that contrasts with the bright yellow and clear blue of spring.

On the other side of the water meadow fence, wood anemone and other wildflowers.
Above: On the other side of the water meadow fence, wood anemone and other wildflowers.

Magdalen College is generally open from 1 p.m. until dusk, except from the end of June until the end of September, when it opens at 10 a.m.

Read about how to plant a fritillary meadow in Gardening 101: Fritillaria and see more ideas for meadow and woodland plants in our curated Garden Design 101 guides to Bulbs & Tubers 101 and Ground Covers 101. Don’t miss:

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