The Fritillary

Fritillaria meleagris, snakes head fritillary

Fritillaria meleagris

Snakeshead fritillary
Fritillaria imperialis William Rex

Fritillaria imperialis 'William Rex'

Crown imperial
Fritillaria imperialis, crown imperial

Rows of Fritillaria imperialis

Fritillaria meleagris Alba

Fritillaria meleagris 'Alba'

White Snakeshead fritillary
Fritillaria persica

Fritillaria persica

Fritillaria persica Ivory Bells

Fritillaria persica 'Ivory Bells'

The markings of the snakeshead fritlliary, almost unique in the world of plants, make it one of the most distinctive of flowers. It is thought of as a British wildflower, although there is no conclusive proof that it actually originated here, and its exact history is unknown.

Many will know the crown imperial lily, F. imperialis, but not necessarily relate it to the snake’s head. A different creature altogether, it is a tall, sturdy plant with bright orange flowers to match its stature, and more at home in a border than anywhere else. In addition to these two well-known fritillaries, there are many more species of this bulbous plant that can be grown in Britain, and they can be grown either in pots, rock gardens or in certain cases naturalised in grass. 

F. meleagris is the easiest fritillary to naturalise in grass and it will increase well if it is left undisturbed in the right spot. With delicate, grass-like leaves that can make it invisible until it flowers, it grows to 30cm tall, with a single pendant flower on each stem. A white form is also available, F. meleagris alba, which has almost translucent white flowers with a hint of tessellation. The crown imperial, F. imperialis, grows to 1.5m tall and has a ring of orange or yellow pendulous flowers from which an eccentric top-knot of spiky leaves emerges. The bulb and leaves have a foxy smell, more noticeable to some than others, but the flower itself is unscented. Several cultivars, including the rusty orange ‘William Rex’ widen the choice of flower colour. Like the crown imperial, F. persica is suitable for a mixed border and has become increasingly popular in recent years. Growing up to 1m, it has multiple dusky plum-purple flowers hanging like bells in a tall flower-spike. Its cultivar ‘Ivory Bells’ has elegant pale green flowers. 

Broadly speaking, fritillaries can be divided into two categories in terms of cultivation requirements: those that need dry conditions, and those that need moisture to thrive. The snake’s head fritillary comes into the second category, preferring damper conditions like the water meadow at Magdalen College in Oxford. However, the soil must also be free-draining, as the bulbs will rot in prolonged cold and damp conditions, so a balance between the two elements is the key. Bulbs of F. meleagris should be planted in late summer or no later than early autumn in a meadow of light grass which can be left undisturbed after flowering for the bulbs to regenerate. Ideally the grass should be mown once in autumn and then not until midsummer, when the plants have built up strength for the following year’s flowering. F. imperialis and F. persica need different treatment, preferring a rich, well-drained soil in full sun. Ideal for a mixed border, both these fritillaries benefit from a high potash fertilizer in early spring.