Snake’s Head Fritillary

On 5th May I bought a Snake’s Head Fritillary from No.21 Flowers (a gorgeous little florist  in Aberystwyth). Well, technically it was more than one, but they came together in a pot. Snake’s Head Fritillary is a strange and beautiful flower that looks like it’s not really of this world. When I’ve posted pictures before, people have asked me if it’s real! It is real, and it turns out it changes quite dramatically as it goes through its life cycle.

Here’s where we begin, with some photos of this freshly planted Fritillary, on 7th May. It has the characteristic drooping flower which is open at the bottom, letting insects in.

A few days later, we started to worry that it didn’t like it in our garden, and perhaps it was too dry, too wet, too something… because it seemed to be closing up. It looked a little dry and shrivelled so I expected the worst. Here it is on 12th May, 6 days after I planted it, closing up and looking a bit sad:

Then all the petals fell off! I was resigned at this point. I figured that it’s a delicate flower, it didn’t like the disturbance, never mind. But the stalks were still sturdy and they gradually started to stand up straight rather than leaning over as they were when the flowers were whole. It gradually became clear that this was all perfectly normal. My lovely Snake’s Head Fritillary was fine – it had just finished flowering and was developing its seeds. By the 19th May, we had clearly fattening seed pods standing upright and proud, apparently to maximise seed dispersal distance:

They’ve been getting fatter and fatter. This is how big one of them was by the rather damp morning of 2nd June:

Unnecessary, but pretty, shot of the stalk all covered in raindrops:

And here’s one today – extremely fat, and turning purplish pink.

I have read that their seeds are dispersed by wind, water, or hay making. I’m not sure I’ll be doing a lot of hay making in the garden so I suspect mine will be relying on wind and water. Perhaps dispersal is imminent now the seed pod has changed colour? Who knows?

Apparently these flowers have a very long period between a seed producing a shoot, and actually becoming a full fledged flowering adult plant. Once a seed has germinated, it will produce a single leaf after 1-3 years! Then after that, between 3-8 years it develops into a non-flowering sub-adult plant. Eventually between 5 to 8 years after germination it becomes a fully grown flowering adult. But even then it may not flower every year! So I don’t know whether I’ll see my original plants flowering again next year. And if the seeds germinate I may have to wait until 2023-2026 to see them flowering! I also discovered that the flowers are only fertile for about 5 days, so no wonder I didn’t have my flowers for long.

In case you are interested, the Latin name for the Snake’s Head Fritillary is Fritillaria meleagris.  “Fritillary and ‘Fritillaria’ come from a Latin origin ‘fritillus’ which means ‘dice-box’ as the markings are similar to a chequer board. ‘Meleagris’ means ‘speckled’ and is the Greek name for a Guinea hen.” – from a Fritillary Facts leaflet produced by Floodplain Meadows Partnership.

By Suzy Shipman

I like to take photos and write words ...


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