England in the spring is so lovely! I know that of course, but every year I am taken aback by quite how stunning it can be. My favourite time is around mid April, when the blossom and emerging leaves veil the trees and bushes in a haze of green, yellow, white, pink, silver, bronze, orange, purple, in every conceivable shade. It is also when the Snakeshead Fritillary (fritillaria meleagris) is at its best. This exquisite member of the lily family was once a common sight in our fields, as its life cycle fitted in well with traditional field management methods. But changes in agricultural practices since the Second World War mean that it is now mostly seen only in gardens.
The plant looks almost like a grass and is not easy to spot until it is actually in flower. The flowers are bell shaped, and nod in the wind on delicate and elegantly arching stems. Most are in various shades of purple or plum, and are marked with a checkerboard pattern that appears very distinct from a distance. Closer up you realise that the markings are actually quite fuzzy. At first I thought that my photos were all slightly out of focus, but then I realised this was not the case! White flowers are dotted about in smaller numbers, and some of these have very faint markings that have a special refined charm.
I am fortunate to live within easy reach of two exceptional fritillary meadows, and this year we went to visit both in one weekend.
North Meadow is just outside Cricklade in Wiltshire and has the largest population of snakeshead fritillaries in the UK. A public footpath runs through the field so I think you could visit at any time, but when the flowers are out there is a welcome tent with leaflets and people on hand to advise you and answer your questions. On the day we visited, the town crier was there in all his finery (but not disturbing the peaceful setting by shouting).
There are marked paths that you are encouraged to stick to, but this does not stop you enjoying the spectacle and getting up close to the plants. I found I was able to take all the photos I wanted without any difficulty.
Down the road, you’ll find the Fritillary Tea Room, which serves light refreshments.
Fritillary Sunday at Ducklington in Oxfordshire is much more of an “event”, and takes place on just one day a year. The field itself is much smaller than North Meadow and has fewer fritillaries. This may be to do with the fact that the hordes of visitors are allowed to wander at will over the field. I personally found this rather disturbing, as the plants are hard to see when not actually in flower, and I am sure lots of them get trampled in the process. It was also difficult to get a good photo without someone’s feet in it.
But there was much else to do and see, including plant sales, cake and ploughmans lunches in the village hall, bell ringing in the church, a very popular clown, and adorable ducklings on the pond. Altogether a very English affair, rather like a village fete with fritillaries thrown in. The flowers though were the least impressive part of our visit for me, although we did pick up two nice pots of plants just coming into bloom for a very reasonable price.
When grown in the garden, fritillaries, like all members of the lily family, are prey to the dreaded lily beetle, an undoubtedly beautiful red bug whose larvae can destroy a lily plant in no time. I’ve stopped growing lilies as such, but I’m hoping that the fritillaries will stand a better chance of survival, flowering as they do much earlier in the year. It seems that the meadows have as yet managed to escape the ravages of this pest, so we are still able to enjoy this wonderful spectacle.