Tuesday 27 March 2018

Snakeshead Fritillaries by Janie Hampton

Fritillaria meleagris have been around for thousands of years
One of the joys of living in Oxford is the annual blooming of snakeshead fritillaries, or fritillaria meleagris, a historic flower.  They appear in the first week in April, sometimes a bit later, but don’t be fooled if you can’t spot them. You can wander into a meadow where they were last year and think you are too early. Then suddenly there is one right under your nose. Snakeshead fritillaries have the magical property of being invisible until you get close, and then suddenly there are thousands round you. The best way to view them is to lie down among them and look through them up to the sky. Admire the bell-shaped silhouette of the flower against a (hopefully) blue sky, and smell the fresh spring earth. Individually, the flowers are extra ordinary and somehow too exotic to be growing wild in Britain. The petals are tessellated in dark purple and pale pink in a geometric checkerboard fashion, as if a graphic artist has drawn each one separately. Inside is a bright orange stamen where you may spot an early bumble bee pollinating the flower. And en masse they are spectacular: a blurred haze of purple sweeping over a green meadow of fresh new grass and yellow dandelions. You may also hear a cuckoo, who lay their eggs in reed warbler’s nests in the surrounding water meadows. 
Sometimes fritillaria meleagris are white
A member of the Liliaceae family of the genus Fritillaria, they are herbaceous perennials with slender stems and lance-shaped greyish-green leaves. Their habitat is damp meadows at altitudes up to 800 m (2,625 ft).  The word Fritillaria comes from the Latin fritillus meaning dice-box, probably referring to the chequered pattern on the flowers. Meleagris means "spotted like a Guineafowl" and "snake's head" refers to the snake- shaped flower heads nodding on their long stems. Some of the flowers are pure white. The bulb, about 2 cm in diameter, contains poisonous alkaloids. They grow about one foot above the spring grass which then masks and protects them as they shed their seeds, to germinate for next year. 
An exotic combination of a snakeshead, a guineafowl and a dice box.
Fritillaria meleagris is native to Europe and western Asia. In Croatia, the flower is known as kockavica and is the country's national symbol. The Swedish name, kungsängslilja means ‘Lily of King’s Meadow’ which is where it grows in large quantities in Sandemar Nature Reserve in the Stockholm Archipelago. They are known to have been around for at least 7,000 years but the flower is increasingly endangered as ancient water meadows disappear.
No-one is sure whether the fritillaries in Britain are indigenous or were introduced by horticulturalists and then spread into the wild. The plant was first described in the 16th century by herbalist John Gerard who knew it as a garden plant. Not until 1736 was it recorded in the wild, so some people claim it must be an escapee. However, it does not easily spread from damp meadows to adjoining land,which means that it could be native and became isolated when Britain was cut off from mainland Europe after the last Ice Age about 12,000 years ago. 
Dandelions grow among Snakeshead Fritillaries in Iffley Meadow, Oxford.
You can grow them yourself from bulbs. Fritillaria meleagris thrives in moist, well drained soil. Plant the bulbs 10cm (4") deep and 10cm (4") apart in a damp spot in your garden, with plenty of well-rotted manure or garden compost.
In Britain, there are now only a handful of meadows left in the Midlands and the south of England. You can find them at North Meadow and Clattinger Farm nature reserves in Wiltshire; and Fox Fritillary Meadow and Mickfield Meadow in Suffolk. They can still be found in Botley war cemetry meadows, Oxford ; and the Oxfordshire  village of Ducklington holds a "Fritillary Sunday" festival. After a poll in 2002, it was chosen as the county flower of Oxfordshire. The plant was once so common in the Thames Valley  and parts of  Wiltshire  that it was picked in vast quantities and sold in the markets of Birmingham, London and Oxford. But most of the plant's habitat was destroyed when ancient meadows were ploughed up during the Second World War to grow food crops. 
At this time of year, Magdalen College meadow in Oxford is filled with the fritillaries which have been here since at least 1785. Once the flowering is over, deer are moved in for the summer and autumn. Their cloven hooves tread in both the seeds and their fertilizing droppings - a perfect combination. Around the edge of the meadow is Addison’s Walk, lined with mature beech, chestnut, yew and lime trees. It is a beautiful and tranquil walk, favoured by students, dons and local historians.
My favourite place, however, is Iffley Meadow beside the River Thames on the edge of Oxford. Every year they are counted, and last year there were 75,508 plants – up from 500 in 1984. Also in the ditches around Iffley Meadow are king cups, dragon flies, reed and Cetti’s warblers, and cuckoos.
After all that strenuous flower-watching, pop into the 19th century Isis Farmhouse on the Thames Towpath. There is no road leading to it – you have to walk or cycle there, but it serves home-made cakes, often accompanied by live jazz.
This time last year, I posted a blog about Cowslips or Concrete. Sadly, despite huge opposition from local residents, Oxford City Council decided that cowslips are not important. First they cut down the flood- preventing willow trees, then they bulldozed the soil, burying the wild flowers. The use of all this gravel and tarmac? To store flood equipment!
This what the cowslip meadow in Marsh Park now looks like. 


Susan Price said...

Let me get this straight. The council cut down the trees which suck up hundreds of litres of water every day, and hold water in the earth around their roots -- cut them down and replaced them with concrete which will flash flood-water straight into the rivers and downstream -- and they did this in order to store equipment for use in floods?
You could not make it up.
I thought Oxford City Coucil was green?-- at least round the edges.

The shenanigns of Oxford Council and others is is one of the reasons why I grow fritillaries, cowslips, wild primrose and bluebell in my garden-- the main reason being, they're beautiful and I love them. Haven't seen any sign of the fritillaries yet-- but my garden has been under snow three times this winter and everything is a bit behind and frost-chewed.

Janie Hampton said...

Indeed! I did rescue a few cowslips the day before the bulldozers moved in, and rehomed them in my garden for future redistribution.

Susan Price said...

Good for you!

Becca McCallum said...

Oh no! Shame on Oxford Council. I remember that post from last year. I planted snakeshead fritillaries in my garden, and they tend to come up 70/30 purple/white.

Tom said...

Thank you Janie an interesting read. Very sad to hear of the attrocities performed by Oxford council, little comfort but here in Worcester the council have roughly the same level of regard for all things natural. I grow snakeshead in my large suburban garden and spread the seeds each year with modest success.