Spring has been well and truly springing all over the gardens here at Chartwell for a couple of weeks now and long may it continue! In fact, so long did the cold wintry weather last, coupled with how hot it has been this week, it almost feels as if Spring has been skipped all together and we’ve gone straight from Winter to Summer! All of this means that there is plenty of horticultural interest for our visitors, from the burgeoning Magnolias to the Spring bulbs. Two real star plants right now however are a couple of fritillaries, but you would never know they were in the same Genus.
Fritillaria imperialis is more commonly known as the Crown Imperial, Imperial Fritillary or the Kaiser’s Crown. Our collection can be found at the bottom of the orchard path, each standing about 1m tall and they could almost act as a signpost. Turn left at the Fritillaries for Churchill’s Studio, turn right for the Kitchen Garden!
Before you see the mesmerizing flower heads, you might actually smell these plants on your way down the path, giving the plant its other name of Stink Lily! The have a distinct earthy, fox-like odour, especially when emerging in early Spring that has been said to repel mice, moles and other rodents. Maybe we should plant some in our greenhouses!
It is the flowers that sit proud above the thick central stem and beneath an attractive spiky barnet that are the real draw of this plant. As great as they look from head height, it is when you bend down and look up inside the hanging flower where the magic really lies though. The inquisitive viewer will be rewarded with a sight of a series of little ‘pearls’ that hang in the depths of the inflorescence. Folklore has sometimes called these moist orbs the tears of Christ. In Christian tradition the crown imperial is said to be the only flower that did not bow its head at the crucifixion of Christ and has bowed and wept ever since. In actual fact, they are simply the nectaries, glistening with tempting nectar for any pollinators that fly by.
Native to a wide stretch of land from western Turkey to the foothills of the Himalayan mountains, it was the great Carl Linnaeus first described the plant in 1753. These bulbous perennials love a spot in full sun but other than that can tolerate a wide range of aspects and soil types. Although sometimes prone to to slug damage, they are also pretty much disease and pest free too. Perfect!
The other fritillary that is strutting its stuff right now is the Snake’s Head Fritillary, or Fritillaria meleagris. This bulbous perennial is always a favourite with anyone who sees it and I for one am never less than fascinated by the intricate checkerboard patterns on the petals. Also known as chess flower, frog-cup, guinea-hen flower, leper lily (because its shape resembled the bell once carried by lepers), Lazarus bell, or checkered lily, our large collection is a bit hidden away, or certainly off the path at least. As you walk down the entrance path and before you get to Churchill’s swimming pool, take a little stroll up the bank on the right and you will discover some stunning treasure.
The name Fritillaria comes from the latin fritillus which means dice-box, probably referring to the checked pattern on the flowers. The species name of meleagris means ‘spotted like a guineafowl’, again referencing the petal design. Vita Sackville-West famously called it “a sinister little flower, in the mournful colour of decay.” It’s not often that I would disagree with Vita, but personally I find them an incredibly cheering plant and they always brings a smile to my face.
Unlike the Crown Imperial, they grow to only little more than the length of a 30cm school ruler and so can get lost amongst long grass which is perhaps ironically a common place to find them. They can thrive in full sun or part shade but once again can tolerate a wide range of growing conditions giving all of us no excuse for not planting them in our own gardens.
The Snake’s Head is native to Europe but in many countries it is now considered an endangered species that is rarely found in the wild but is commonly grown in gardens. In Britain there is some arguement amongst botanists as to whether it is a native species or a perhaps a plant that once escaped from the garden. The plant was first described in the UK in the 16th century by herbalist John Gerard who knew it as a garden plant. It was not recorded in the wild until 1736, which suggests that it might be an escapee. However, the fact that its habitat is usually confined to ancient hay meadows and it does not easily spread to adjoining land, leads some to the theory that it is actually a native species which became isolated from Europe when Britain was cut off during the last ice age.
Whatever the folklore and stories behind these two fritillaries, the simple fact that they are both amazing to look at cannot be denied or overstated. Make sure you pay a visit to us here at Chartwell soon and see them for yourself. If you take any pictures of these beautiful garden models, maybe you could even enter them into our Chartwell Photography Competition, more details on which can be found by clicking right about here.