Plant 179

Fritillaria meleagris L. (Liliaceae)


Snake's head fritillary

Snake's head fritillary is an iconic flower of damp grassland, open woodland and alpine meadows. One of twenty-four European species of Fritillaria, it is found in the wild across much of the continent and has naturalised in some areas outside its range. Its status as a native in the British Isles remains controversial; Stace's New Flora (2010) describing it as 'doubtfully native.'

Fritillaria meleagris is a bulbous perennial. It flowers during April and May, often in dense swathes in its favoured habitats. Plants usually bear one pendent, purple flower with a distinctive, dark chequered pattern, although the flowers may frequently be white. This chequered pattern is reflected in the plant's scientific name: Fritillaria comparing it to a Roman dice-box and meleagris to the patterning of a guinea fowl's plumage. Flowers, which are pollinated by bees, are followed by an upright fruit capsule containing neat stacks of triangular seeds. Fritillaria species have particularly large genome sizes and have been the subject of scientific scrutiny as a result. The plant contains toxic alkaloids including Imperialine, which disrupts kidney and heart functions, and Tulipalin A, which causes a contact allergic reaction in the skin. Both toxins have been used in the development of pharmaceuticals.

The snake's head fritillary is a well-known flower and bears many evocative common names, often with associations of death and disease such as Leper Lilies or Dead Man's Bells. In certain areas, including the Thames Valley, the flowers have become associated with May Day celebrations and were picked in quantity at these events. The Oxfordshire parish of Ducklington, with a large wild population in surrounding meadows, still celebrates 'Fritillary Sunday' and images of fritillaries are a recurring motif in the church.

Despite these traditions, there are no reliable records of the flower growing in the wild in Britain before the 1730s when John Blackstone recorded the plant growing at Harefield, Middlesex. Records of cultivation as an ornamental are older, dating back to the Tudor period. The famous snake's head fritillary population in Magdalen College Meadow, Oxford was not recorded until 1785, despite the meadow's proximity to the Botanic Garden, leading to speculation that these plants were introductions from Ducklington.

Loss of habitat due to the draining or fertilising of grassland has led to a decline in the wild population of these flowers across Europe. In several eastern European countries the fritillary is threatened or extinct in its former range.

Further reading

Mabey R 1996. Flora Brittanica. Sinclair-Stevenson.

Marren P 1999. Britain's rare flowers. Poyser.

James Penny