Snake’s heads in the grass cause delight, not consternation

Like a snake's head rising up, the bell-shaped flowers of Fritillaria meleagris make their entrance suddenly, almost overnight, causing delight..

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    The Fritillaria meleagris, also know as "snake’s head," is one of the friendliest forms of fritillaria to raise.
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Having just been released from a painfully enforced winter’s constraint, I find myself scurrying about the garden every morning, blissfully happy at greeting each new bud or blossom.

One of the more enchanting – and one could possibly say addictive – species I’ve just recently started to collect, is Fritillaria in their many forms and colors.

Fritillaria is a genus of approximately 100 species of bulbous plants, native to the temperate regions of the Northern Hemisphere. Most often, they have nodding, bell- or cup-shaped flowers, most of which are spring-flowering.

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Of this group, one of the easiest to grow is Fritillaria meleagris, also known variously as snake’s head (its original English name), checkered lily (common American name), rattlesnake lily, Guinea-hen flower, frog-cup, leper lily, turkey hen, chequered lily, ginny flower, chequered daffodil, and – whew – just plain fritillary. (As an aside, see the problem with common names?)

The pretty, pendant blossom has a square, checker-board-type pattern of reddish-brown, purple, white and gray coloration – and a mix of these bulbs generally also sports white (cream) and pale yellow, though the latter coloration doesn’t show up very often. Inside, the stamens are shocking yellow.

In the slightest breeze, the large single to multiple blooms dance on delicately thin gray-green stems and from a distance, these intriguing blossoms appear as if suspended above the ground.

The word Fritillaria comes from the Latin word for dice-box, referring to the checkered pattern found, to a greater or lesser degree, on all the blossoms.

The 12-inch (30 cm) high plant generally flowers in my garden from late April through the end of May, but this year it’s a very welcome early visitor. The bulbs, planted in the fall, are less than an inch in diameter (2 cm). The plant is trouble free and fully hardy in Zones 4 to 8.

A native of many countries in Europe, it was generally found growing in grasslands in damp soils and river meadows, though finding a stand of checkered lilies in the wild these days, can take a bit of doing.

An endangered species in France, Slovenia and Romania, it is a sad fact that today, it is mostly seen only in people’s gardens as a cultivated plant.

Unlike most fritillaries that need well-drained soil, the checkered lily prefers cool, moist soil, and can even tolerate a bit of wet feet. If you have an early spring, small bulb area in your garden full of galanthus, scilla, crocus, and muscari – an area where you don’t mow the grass till the bulbs set their seed – checkered lily, naturalized and growing in huge masses, would be a sight to behold.

Otherwise, grow them in rock gardens or a moist, woodland garden. Sun-baked borders are just a bit too hot and dry for them.

I know I am prone to say this about many different plants – but I totally love this intriguing flower. I am bewitched by how the fragile-looking new growth gives rise to captivatingly stocky bells held majestically one or two blossoms to a graceful stem.

I marvel at the beauty of the faint checkered pattern on the cream-colored femme fatales and long for the day a pale yellow checkered siren of this fascinating species makes her appearance in my garden.

Betty Earl is one of nine garden writers who blog regularly at Diggin' It. She's the author of “In Search of Great Plants: The Insider’s Guide to the Best Plants in the Midwest.” She also writes a regular column for Chicagoland Gardening Magazine and The Kankakee Journal and numerous articles for Small Gardens Magazine, American Nurseryman, Nature’s Garden, and Midwest Living Magazine, as well as other national magazines. She is a garden scout for Better Homes and Gardens and a regional representative for The Garden Conservancy.

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