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Oxfordshire's County Flower: The Snake's Head Fritillary


April is the month when you can discover the beautiful, delicate, drooping bell-shaped purple or white flowers of the exquisite snake’s head fritillary which puts on a show in traditional flood meadows, such as those at Iffley Meadows, managed by Berkshire, Buckinghamshire & Oxfordshire Wildlife Trust (BBOWT). The Latin name for these delightful lilies is  Fritillaria meleagris, but these fritillary are more widely known by their common name: snake’s head fritillary, or chequered lily due to the chequered markings on the petals of their pale to mid purple flower heads (although occasionally a white flower appears amongst the purple blooms).

Once a common sight in meadows, with records of its appearance dating back to the sixteenth century, the snake’s head fritillary was considered by many to be a British native species but in fact, it is a Central European native. Shakespeare mentions Fritillaria meleagris in his plays, and English herbalist John Gerard included them in his extensive work, General Historie of Plants (1597). Fritillaries started to appear in European Botanical Gardens as exotic specimens originating from East Asia, Persia and Turkey and the snake’s head fritillary specifically was introduced from central Europe. 

The fritillaria genus is a large one, with around 130 different species growing worldwide, all belonging to the lily family Liliaceae. In Oxfordshire, we are fortunate to have three places where these delightful flowering perennials can be seen from late February to late May:

Magdalen College Water Meadow

When fritillaries grow in profusion in the damp soil of the Water Meadows, they are spectacular. Magdalen College, one of the grandest of Oxford’s colleges, is surrounded by its own Meadows and deer park covering an island with the River Cherwell branching around it. Addison’s Walk, (named after Joseph Addison who was a member of the intellectual Kit-Cat Club), encircles the island so visitors can look onto the Water Meadow’s carpet of snake’s head fritillaries. On Sunday 7 April 2024, the College and Grounds will be open to the public for the National Gardens Scheme.

Iffley Meadows

A mile or so down the Iffley Road, you will find the Iffley Meadows Nature Reserve managed by BBOWT. When, in 1983 BBOWT took over the management of the rare floodplain meadow habitat off Donnington Bridge Road, the site had less than 500 snake’s head fritillaries growing in the Meadows. However, thanks to the work of a team of professional and amateur ecologists from the Trust, over a period of four decades, the numbers of fritillaries counted year-on-year has increased, sometimes exceeding 80,000. The 2023 annual count conducted by volunteers totalled 43,349 fritillary bulbs in bloom. BBOWT manage the meadows in the same way each year, cutting the hay in July, with aftermath grazing and so the variety in these numbers is due to other factors. These include any flooding which has taken place in the preceding 24 months; the weather just before and during the flowering season; and the impact of browsing deer.

St Bartholomew’s Church in Ducklington near Witney.

St Bartholomew’s Church celebrates the snake’s head fritillary every April when they hold their Fritillary Sunday which this year will be on 14 April from 12 noon. Visitors are invited to walk amongst the beautiful flowers in the meadow near the Church, which is also open and there are a number of activities including Morris dancing and musical interludes. Visitors can also enjoy a cream tea or ploughman’s lunch in the village hall before stocking up at the plant stall.

The Ducklington meadow is owned by the Peel family who, although they no longer live in the village, have allowed the Church to continue running this fundraiser which began in the 1980s when the Church was faced with major expenses for repairs and conservation work. Over the years, Fritillary Sunday has grown in size with additional activities added to encourage more visitors. Ducklington is the only place where visitors are permitted to walk among the flowers which makes Fritillary Sunday so special for many people. There are in fact some 72 different plant species recorded growing in this meadow. Donations for this event are very much appreciated to help contribute towards the cost of maintaining this ancient building which dates back to the 12 century.

Growing Snake’s Head Fritillaries

If you would like to grow snake’s head fritillaries in your own garden, plant the bulbs between August and November to a depth of 8-10 cm, cover with soil and press the soil down lightly. Water well and keep the soil moist. In March, give your snake’s head fritillaries some liquid fertiliser to help promote flowering. Following the flowering period, allow the foliage to die down back into the bulbs. Once it is completely yellow, cut back the parts of the plant growing above ground. It is worth marking where you plant the bulbs to ensure they do not get dug up through the year.

As indicated earlier there are both red/purple and white varieties of snake’s head fritillary. The red/purple ones to look out for are Saturnus with red/purple flowers with a clear chessboard pattern; Mars with deep red/purple flowers and blue-green leaves; and Charon with red/purple flowers and a light purple chessboard pattern. White varieties include Alba, Aphrodite and Pomona which has white/light purple flower heads.

It is worth remembering that all parts of the snake’s head fritillary are highly toxic and should not be eaten under any circumstances. As they flower early in the season, they also provide valuable food for honeybees and bumblebees.


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