Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Vita Sackville-West, a Bowl of Popcorn and a Radish

If  I could be a plant, I would be Fritillaria meleagris. Unfurling balletically from a deep sleep, stretching gracefully, then flowering sophisticatedly and elegantly. Instead I am a radish. I leap out of bed before everyone else and there is a strong chance of fieriness as I bumble around, ruddy faced, trying to get to grips with the day. Lately the days have involved chunks of time spent of turf-staring, for which I blame Fritillaria meleagris. It is all very well enjoying this plant in full flower, but missing the gentle unfurling would be a crime. 


Fritillaria meleagris is the ultimate maverick plant. For a start, it thrives where other bulbs won’t cope. If your soil is heavy and damp, rejoice and forget the grit. Just plant this fritillary deep (four times the depth of the bulb) and look forward to years of flowers. If your soil is sandy and dry, you had better enjoy this plant in someone else’s garden, because it might cope in your soil for a while, but you will need to replace the bulbs far too soon. 




Since it was first recorded as a wild flower in 1736 (it had already been recorded in gardens in 1578), Fritillaria meleagris has been the subject of debate. Is it native to England? If not, how did it get here? Did it arrive with the Romans, or is it a cheeky escapee from a Tudor garden? Mysterious Fritillaria meleagris certainly keep us guessing. Where mystery and controversy lead, bad publicity often follows; and Fritillaria meleagris is no stranger to negative press.




While the commonest common name these days is snake's head fritillary, these delightful little flowers are also known as leper lilies. There must have been plenty of bells with happy connotations clanging around in the Middle Ages, but this quiet beauty got its name because it resembled the warning bell carried by lepers. To add insult to injury, Vita Sackville-West didn't seem overly fond of Fritillaria meleagris:

And then I came to a field where the springing grass
Was dulled by the hanging cups of fritillaries
(The Land)

Oh dear. Galling as it must be to have a human radish disagree with you, I see them as jewels in the field.



Vita Sackville-West would have seen fritillaries growing in the wild; I haven't, which is one of the reasons why I value this plant so dearly. Boggy pasture was drained and cultivated to increase food production during the Second World War and fritillary meadows disappeared. What was once a common wildflower can now be seen growing naturally in just a handful of locations in Southern and Central England. 



Obviously I can’t plant a natural fritillary meadow, but I can grow these lovely bee magnets in a damp corner of the orchard. Having tried and failed with fritillaries in a previous garden, I didn’t plant too many. Happily, these fritillaries have been with me for two years now and appear to be establishing well. I grew them from bulbs for financial reasons and this revealed another of these pretty little flowers' idiosyncrasies. They might be delicate and elegant, but they grow from bulbs which bear more than a passing resemblance to popcorn. 




Fritillary meadows can be found here: http://www.wildlifetrusts.org/reserves-wildlife/great-places-see/fritillarymeadows

I am linking this post with Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day hosted by May Dreams Gardens and I will now be heading over there to see what is blooming elsewhere on the planet. Here's the link: http://www.maydreamsgardens.com/2015/04/garden-bloggers-bloom-day-april-2015.html

60 comments:

  1. These are some exceptional photos of Fritillaria. Too bad, they do not grow well in my hot subtropical climate. It is a treat to watch these beauties.

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    1. Thank you! It's a shame you can't grow them, they are beautiful.

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  2. I love Vita except when I want to scream at her! Those Frits are just gorgeous. I can't think of a Spring ephemeral that I enjoy more. This year I ordered half a dozen other Frit varieties, so we'll see what happens down the road.

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    1. Haha - very true about Vita! Here's hoping all those Fritillaria make themselves very comfortable in your garden.

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  3. I adore this plant. I have it in several locations, a couple of which I have no memory of planting. Perhaps a stray bulb came in a shovel full of something else. May they live long and prosper.

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    1. You clearly have excellent taste in plants!

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  4. There is an advantage to clay soil, you can grow Fritillaria meleagris.

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    1. Yes - and clay gardeners have the muscliest arms of all gardeners!

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  5. They are very pretty...can they cope with shade too? By the way I don't think a radish is a terrible thing to be...much more a radish than a potato;)

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    1. Hi Mia, part-shade's absolutely fine. Potatoes have eyes all over the place - that can be a useful trait in some professions ;-)

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  6. The patterns are so distinctive, I would love to grow them. How wonderful it is that you have found a place where they thrive in your garden.

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    1. It is, Shirley - I couldn't be happier!

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  7. I'm thinking this plant is simply magnificent! I don't have any in my space but I would love too! And you had me chuckling about the radish bit! I can relate! Happy Thursday to you! Nicole xo

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    1. Thank you Nicole. It is a wonderful plant - a spring treat!

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  8. There's so much to love about this spring flowering, one of the most graceful, if not the most graceful of all!

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    1. I am struggling to think of a more graceful spring flower.

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  9. The Frittilaria meleagris also is one of my favourite spring flowers. I should like to have a meadow full of them but I´m afraid I shall never have so many of them. My soil is wet and acid, so I have some which don´t disappear.
    You made a great post about these wonderful flowers and so funny you call them snake´s head fritillary or leper lily. In our country we call them ´kievitseitjes´ translated lapwing´s eggs.

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    1. I have just googled lapwing eggs - they are very pretty. A fine common name for this beautiful plant!

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  10. Ha ha, you had me laughing at your description of being a radish, I'm sorry to say that I'm the same. Ah well. I love snakeshead fritilliaries, I have a few in my garden which I planted quite a few years ago now and though they return each year they've never increased in number. I do wish they would as they're such pretty plants.

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    1. Lucky you to be able to grow them! I am hoping they will spread here. I don't cut them back. I don't even get round to mowing the grass where they grow until at least July. It's quite a long time to leave an area uncultivated, but I am hoping that it will work.

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  11. Great tribute to a wonderful little plant. I have a patch of them in medium clay soil in the shade - looking forward to the blooms.

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  12. I love these plants too and thankfully the like the conditions in my garden too. From a small packet of bulbs 4 years ago, I find they are now popping up in quite a few places. I know not if they have self seeded or it I am taking them with me when I move plants around. Either way, I don't mind one bit!
    There are far worse things to watch so on you go girl :)

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    1. It sounds as if you are doing a Miss Willmott, but trailing fritillaries in your wake. Excellent!

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  13. They have drawn attention from both of us this week. I didn't understand why they were called snake's head until I took a photo of a bud. I looked them up too and they do have a lot of common names.

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    1. They have an incredible number of common names. If nothing else, they show us why we need the latin!

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  14. They are beautiful. Ours will be coming up soon.
    Mine are in rather sandy soil - but wet in spring. So far they seem to have managed I hope they keep on doing so.

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    1. Fingers crossed for them, Alain. Wet sandy soil must make for an interesting cultivation experience!

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  15. I've also heard them referred to as 'Toad's Head' and 'Deadman's Bell' which conjures up some unpleasant images. Whatever name is used though they are still the most beautiful flowers. I hope that yours continue to flourish and spread like wildfire for you Sarah.

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    1. Thank you, Anna. Those are horrible common names! What were our ancestors thinking?

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  16. I have plenty of boggy clay soil so it's time to try again. If I plant enough perhaps the pheasant can't eat them all??

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    1. We have a lot of pheasants here and I haven't noticed much damage. The fritillaries are quite well hidden in grass, I wonder if that helps?

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  17. Oh I think I might be able to grow these and I saw some at the garden centre this morning. I already had a trolley full so was trying to get out without spending even more on these beautiful flowers. I need to do a soil test too before I go for the big stuff!

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    1. You do! Soil testing can save so much money in the longer term. If you missed the plants, the autumn bulbs will be cheaper.

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  18. Wow - those are some gorgeous flowers.

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  19. It was interesting learning about these flowers and yet now I am left with a deep craving for popcorn! :)

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    1. That is the problem. Have you tried popcorn drizzled with maple syrup? I can recommend it.

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  20. I've never really met a fritillary... your description sounds divine!

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    1. If ever there was a spring bulb worth meeting, it's Fritillaria meleagris!

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  21. we visited Lytes Cary Manor (near Somerton) recently and these fritillaries were naturalised in an orchard - they were stunning and I will be making a note to visit them every spring!

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    1. Oh that sounds very worth a visit. I will be adding it to my list.

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  22. Hello Sarah, they would love it in our garden, where the ground is heavy and near-terminally wet. The only trouble is trying to plant these deep in the grass without destroying it - we had traumatic experiences of naturalising daffodils in the grass of our previous garden.

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    1. My mind is boggling with the traumatic experiences of naturalising daffs! I just slit the grass to a spade's depth, wiggled the spade around a bit, then slid the bulbs in while the spade was still in position, before closing the little trench as I withdrew the spade. It made very little impact on the grass, but got the bulbs down to the depth they needed. Good luck! They're worth it!

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  23. These are so pretty, Sarah. So happy that we were able to share their unfolding with you. xo Laura

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  24. They have to be one of the most unusual and intriguing plants don't they. I have mine growing in containers otherwise I fear they would disappear.

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    1. You're doing well to keep them going in containers. At least if they are raised, it's easier to take a really close look at their amazing markings.

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  25. A meadow of fritillaries sounds wonderful! I find them fascinating flowers. I have never seen one growing in my area but have admired them from afar ever since I first saw one in a catalogue. I am tempted to try them, since we do have clay soil here.

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    1. It has to be worth a try. Now these ones have survived a couple of years, I will buy a few more in the autumn to help to increase the numbers.

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  26. Hello Sarah, your fritillaries are delightful and I wonder if I can grow them here in Aus? Probably not, though it is quite wet but warm, maybe in Tasmania..... I just love imagining you as a radish! I'm now working on what flower I would like to be and what vegetable I actually am....a potato I think.

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    1. Potatoes are versatile. There's nothing wrong with that!

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  27. What an intriguing title for your post! I was trying to imagine how it got its title, but gave up at the radish! How could anyone possibly not see the beauty of the fritillary, especially one of gardening's chief heroines !

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    1. I was shocked that anyone could have anything bad to say about fritillaries.

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  28. I need to grow these! I am not a radish. I am an apple. I am not a fan of mornings and need plenty of time to become sweet and palatable. But if these little bulbs like moisture, they are my new favorite bulb!

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    1. Yay! A convert! I like the idea of being an apple - not least because when apples are crushed, they make cider.

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  29. I love fritillaries too, but haven’t got any in my current garden – I had some in my previous garden. I will plant some in my new garden when I have found a good spot for them, they have such interesting pattern and are very photogenic :-)

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  30. Sarah, I have always been fond of the Fritillaria meleagris and Myra just loves them. Must introduce them to our new garden, plenty wet parts area's to test how tough they are.

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