Plant 121

Fritillaria sibthorpiana (Sm.) Baker (Liliaceae)


Sibthorp's fritillary

The scientific name of the bulbous, yellow-flowered Fritillaria sibthorpiana commemorates the University's third Sherardian Professor of Botany, John Sibthorp. Sibthorp explored the eastern Mediterranean in the late-1780s and early-1790s, employed the botanical artist Ferdinand Bauer and funded publication of the Flora Graeca (1806-1840). In his original notes Sibthorp named the plant 'Fritillaria Emereii', after Ninian Imrie, a military engineer and likely spy.

Sibthorp and Bauer spent the winter of 1786-87 in Constantinople, where they met with Imrie and Sibthorp's friend John Hawkins. By spring 1787 the group were exploring the Mediterranean coast of Turkey; at the end of March they landed at Porto Cavaleri (near Akyar Burnu). Imrie 'who was by far the most agile of our party after much labour and difficulty reach[ed] the summit of the nearest mountain & brought back with him a new and elegant species of Fritillaria'. However, when James Smith, founder of the Linnean Society, eventually wrote up Sibthorp's work he named the plant in Sibthorp's honour and considered it a tulip. The rules of botanical naming mean Imrie's association with the plant's discovery is lost in the name, even though it is now in the genus Sibthorp first placed it.

Despite its diminutive size, Fritillaria sibthorpiana has caused considerable confusion for investigators of Turkish and Greek fritillaries. The name has been applied to three or four different eastern Mediterranean fritillaries; even Smith in his original description merged two separate species. At least part of the confusion was the lack of specimens for botanists to study. Until it was rediscovered by the Scandinavian botanists Per Wendelbo and Hans Runemark in 1972, Fritillaria sibthorpiana was known only from the few specimens collected by Imrie (stored in the Oxford herbarium) and Bauer's watercolour published in the Flora Graeca.

One hundred and eighty five years after the original discovery, seeds collected by Wendelbo and Runemark were germinated, and plants eventually flowered at Goteborg Botanical Garden. Sibthorp's fritillary was propagated and is now available in cultivation but in the wild remains a rare, threatened species. It is endemic to limestone hills in the region south west of Marmaris (Turkey) and the nearby Greek island of Simi.

Fritillaria sibthorpiana can be separated from similar species since it has two to three leaves and the flowers have a thick style. Bauer's watercolour shows these features, emphasising the artist's attention to detail; he only saw and sketched the living plant once.

Further reading

Harris SA 2007. The magnificent Flora Graeca. How the Mediterranean came to the English Garden. Bodleian Library.

Rix EM 1975. Notes on Fritillaria (Liliaceae) in the eastern Mediterranean Region, III. Kew Bulletin 30: 153-162.

Stephen Harris