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…

Keep off the grass

Seen by Mr Bee on a sign at the Last Emperor’s Palace in China:

“Don’t be a meadow stomper.”

I like that very much. Grass is just… grass. But a meadow is something beautiful, with a medley of plants and small creatures. “Meadow” makes me think of butterflies and tiny flowers and wild-grown thyme and life. I would never want to stomp all over a meadow.

I would however like to walk through it, and I suppose that if a thousand people did exactly the same thing, it would become a drudge of mud. The sign appeals to my better nature, to the sense of wanting to keep the meadow untrod, so that it continues to grow and flourish.

Whereas this sign, which I saw at the Inner Temple in London a few months ago?

Please keep off the grass

Even the amerliorating “please” didn’t help. I really, really, wanted to walk on that grass.

Piggy palace

We have a new hutch for our guinea pigs, which is so large and grand that we have taken to calling it the Piggy Palace.

Our cat loves it.

Cat on top

(Description: Cat on top of large guinea pig hutch)

The guinea pigs don’t seem to be worried by the cat at all, and we have even seen them facing her down, through the safety of the wire mesh. In cat fashion, she retreats, and then sits nonchalantly washing her face, just so that everyone knows that she chose to walk away.

The piglets are enjoying their new space too. We have had them in a raised hutch during the cold and wet winter months, but now that the weather is warming up (notwithstanding recent snowfalls), they are down on the ground, skittering and scuttling about, and keeping the lawn down.

In other domestic news, about a week ago I sowed sunflowers, coriander, chives, swan plants, basil, spinach, capsicum, zucchini, iceberg lettuce, roma tomatoes, cherry tomatoes, pansies and pansies. All in biodegradable peat pots, carefully tucked into a mini greenhouse. A week later, the spinach and lettuce seedlings are up, and the sunflowers are starting to show themselves.


(Description: seed trays in tent-like greenhouse, about 60cm wide by 50cm deep by 1m tall)

I am looking forward to spring.

A patch of land

Cross posted

I visited an allotment garden in London a few weeks ago. We have friends who live in central London suburb, not right in town, but only a few tube stops out from the centre. We stayed with them for a few days when we arrived, and to my delight, to help our recovery from jet lag, they took us to visit their allotment near Hampstead Heath.

Allotment gardening seems strange to those of us reared in the half-gallon quarter acre pavlova paradise, where each household grew its own vegies. But they are common in the UK, where backyards are tiny, or non-existent. Councils supply some land, usually fenced and gated, and people in the area can apply for an allotment within that area. In some areas there are long waiting lists for allotments: our friends were on the list for about 10 years. They have a half allotment, for which they pay about £50 a year. And on that allotment, they can grow whatever they like. Our friends grow fruit and vegetables: raspberries and artichokes and beans and strawberries and leeks and onions and whatever else takes their fancy.

There seems to be about 80 to 100 allotments in the area where our friends have their garden. Some are very plain – just some grass and fruit trees – while others are extensively landscaped and planted with anything and everything. It’s fascinating wandering among the allotments, and seeing what people are growing. There is a strong culture of sharing cuttings and seeds and advice, and of active neighbourliness.

It seems that the politics can be intense. There are … inconsistencies when it comes to who may, and who may not, have a shed on their allotment. Our friends may not, but they have stored their tools in their garden seat, which is not a shed. One person seems to be running a small wood carving business from his site, but he is the Chairman of the committee, so no one has raised an objection. Yet. People with expansionist ambitions keep a close eye on their neighbours’ plots, anxious to report the least appearance of a weed, so that their neighbour can be declared incompetent and the plot annexed.

There are many community gardens in New Zealand, but I do not know of any allotment gardens. The concept seems superb to me: find a good patch of land, and encourage gardeners to take up individual plots there, in a shared undertaking. It could be a very effective way for people to grow their own food, in community, and to pass on knowledge and skills.

I am busy planning my new garden. I have worked out which areas I can set aside for my daughters, and in just a few weeks, I hope to start spring gardening with them. Growing food for us to eat, planting flowers to enjoy, passing on the knowledge and joy in gardening that was given to me by my mother. A green and growing love, spreading from one generation to the next, and the next.


Cross posted

This landscape is on display outside the National Art Gallery in London. It’s huge – about 7 metres high by 10 metres wide (I think).

Green landscape: meadows, trees, hills fading into the distance


(Description: Green landscape: meadows, trees, hills fading into the distance)

Here’s a detail from the landscape.

Detail from landscape

(Description: Small plants: thyme, oregano / marjoram, grasses)

The landscape is a garden.

Lawn Art

I mowed the lawns today, for the benefit of our supervising neighbour.

Woman symbol mowed into a lawn, lawn mowed, symbol in relief.

Description: freshly mowed lawn, with the woman symbol in unmowed relief.

Lawn with wavy lines mowed into it.

Description: lawn with wavy lines mowed into it.

Our neighbour does not seem to be amused.

I tried various other designs, but there’s a limit to what can be achieved with the somewhat blunt cuts made by a lawn mower. My pentagram didn’t work at all. I’m thinking that crenelations might be the go next time around, on the boundary between us and our neighbours. The symbolism would be, well, symbolic.