Travel report: Fritillaries and other flowers

Reading the paper version of The Independent one day while we were in the United Kingdom, I came across a lament for the fritillaries that had not bloomed that year. The writer described these flowers as, “snakeshead fritillaries, chequered purple nodding bells…”

Beautiful, I thought, and I should like to see those flowers, because I have always been fond of bell shaped flowers.

There was no picture of the flowers in the paper version, so I didn’t know quite what they looked like. But a few days later, my father and I were out walking, and we came across some chequered purple nodding bells, about 15cm high, gently shaking under a tree. “Fritillaries!” I said. But Dad was dubious. He had previously seen fritillaries, and from what he could recall, they were tallish, orange flowers.

What Dad had in mind was these flowers – fritillaria imperialis, or imperial fritillaries.

Fritillaria imperialis

Fritillaria imperialis

(Description: tall stems against an old wall, spiky green leaves at the top, with several bell shaped orangey flowers beneath each spike of leaves. This photo was taken at Salisbury Cathedral Close.)

My mother is an accomplished gardener, and she has a great knowledge of plants and flowers. So I took a photo of the purple chequered nodding bells, and later on, showed it to her. “Fritillaries!” she said. “Snakeshead fritillaries, and their Latin name is fritillaria meleagris.”

She had never seen fritillaries herself: she had only read about them. So Mum and I went back to the same spot, to look at the joyful patch of gorgeously beautiful flowers.

Fritillaria meleagris

Fritillaria meleagris

(Description: grass under a tree, with purple bell shaped flowers scattered throughout.)

They are delightful flowers, and I would love to be able to grow them here. But it may not be possible: they really need a cold climate. They can be grown successfully in Dunedin, but my hometown in Te Ika a Maui (the northern island of New Zealand) probably won’t be cold enough. I would have to resort to annual refrigeration of the bulbs.

Fritillaria meleagris - close-up

Fritillaria meleagris – close-up

(Description: close-up of fritillaria meleagris, with purple and creamy white chequered pattern.)

Being a thorough-going New Zealander, I called these flowers fri-ti-LAIR-ries, with the emphasis on the third syllable. But an English friend tells me that they are more usually called fri-TIL-a-ries, with the emphasis on the second syllable.

The fritillaries were late this year, and so were the other spring flowers. But that meant that I was able to achieve one ambition that I have had for about twenty-five years now: I saw daffodils in bloom beneath the medieval walls of York. I nearly burst into tears when I caught sight of them, but I was driving, so I blinked a few times, and carried on. Later on, we walked around the walls, and everywhere, great masses of daffodils were dancing.

Daffodils under the walls of York

Daffodils under the walls of York

(Description: grey walls against a grey sky, and underneath, masses of golden daffodils.)

And in a moment of revelation, I finally understood why wallflowers are so called.



(Description: bright yellow wallflowers, growing in the walls of Lindisfarne.)

Because spring in the UK was so late this year, we didn’t see as many gardens and flowers as I would have liked. Another time…


4 comments on “Travel report: Fritillaries and other flowers

  1. Mindy says:

    How wonderful!

  2. Emma says:

    Those snake’s-head fritillaries are gorgeous, I wonder if I could get them to grow here…

  3. Daleaway says:

    Deborah, I am growing fritillaries – though not yet the snakeshead – at a slightly warmer location than yours. I do not refrigerate my bulbs, as a near-frost or two seems to be all they need.
    You can buy them in New Zealand from some bulb catalogues, eg NZ Bulbs, though sales have closed for this season.

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