I was just leaving my friend’s house the other day when I noticed a charming little group of Fritillaria meleagris happily blooming on her front lawn. This fritillary goes by many common names: Snake’s Head Fritillary, Checkered Daffodil, Chess Flower and Leopard Lily, thought to be a corruption of an earlier name: Leper Lily, from the similar shape of the flowers to that of the warning bell of the leper.
I recognized the flowers because I used to have them in my own garden. I planted the bulbs several years ago hoping to see the plant naturalize and form a little colony. The flowers are either a rich red-purple or they are white. Both forms are checkered, although it is more difficult to see the pattern on the white flowers.
Seeing these fritillaries prompted me to look for them in my own garden when I got home. Sadly, I found only two flowers, both colored red-purple and one past its prime. The two of them were leaning into each other as if seeking comfort and companionship. To my eye, they looked a bit lonely. I put a reminder into my garden journal to plant lots of these little bulbs next fall, in a “lime free, moist, grassy spot”. I think I’ll have a word with my friend, too, and ask her if she has any tips for me, since she’s been so successful with the fritillaries herself.
I took out pencil and paper and did a little study of the checkered fritillaries, looking at them from different angles to catch the inside of the “bells” as well as the outside. You’ll notice that I’ve added a third flower, so now they don’t look quite so lonely. The markings, when observed closely, turn out to be irregular and difficult to reproduce. I think I will have to study the flowers using a magnifying glass.
My admiration for botanical artists who have successfully managed to portray the patterned flowers of the checkered fritillary grew enormously during the course of this little exercise. One of the best watercolor illustrations I’ve seen is Snake’s Head Fritillaries and Cowslips by Pandora Sellars, reproduced in Contemporary Botanical Artists: The Shirley Sherwood Collection by Shirley Sherwood. I have this book on loan from the library and will be sorry when the time comes to take it back. If you are interested in seeing some really lovely, clear photographs of fritillaries, have a look at this site.
Vincent Van Gogh painted fritillaries, too; but these were the giant (3 to 4 feet tall) Fritillaria imperialis, at the other end of the scale from delicate Fritillaria meleagris. There are many varieties of fritillary: the 2011 catalogue from Fraser’s Thimble Farms lists 24 different forms.
I promise myself that one of these days when I’m feeling really, really patient, I’m going to try to capture some little fritillaries in watercolour.