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SNAKE’S HEAD LILY

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Elisabeth Ginsburg
You need this in your perennial border.

If the guinea hen flower (Fritillaria meleagris) were a person, it would need therapy. For centuries it has been called all kinds of pejorative names—snake’s head lily, sullen lady, and even leper’s bell. Eminent garden writer Vita Sackville-West did not help matters when she referred to it as "a sinister little flower." On top of that, it is small and unassuming, suffering by comparison with its big, flashy relative, the Crown Imperial (Fritillaria imperialis). At the very least, the guinea hen flower should have a well-developed inferiority complex.

Fortunately, guinea hen flowers have bloomed every spring for centuries, oblivious to nicknames, pronouncements by garden writers and horticultural fashion trends. With any luck, the twenty-five that I planted last week will flourish in a corner of my garden next spring.

I have been meaning to plant some of these interesting little spring bloomers for years, just as I have meant to unpack some boxes that have languished in my cellar over the same period of time. Other things distracted me until this year when one of the online bulb vendors offered twenty-five bulbs for an indescribably low price. I took the bait.

The Latin name of the species, Fritillaria, came from the Latin word for a dice-cup or box used in gambling games. The reference is undoubtedly to the checkered markings on the tulip-shaped blossoms. Even the white form of Fritillaria melleagris is faintly checkered, and one of the reference sources compares the appearance of these marks on the petals to watermarks. Those who are into butterfly lore are aware that there is a group of brush-footed butterflies known collectively as the fritillaries. These winged creatures have the same kind of checkered patterns on their wings. It would be interesting to see a great spangled fritillary butterfly sipping nectar from a Fritillaria meleagris, but given the latter’s early bloom season, I doubt that it ever happens.

The species name, meleagris, also comes from the Latin word for guinea hen, hence the plant’s common name. Guinea hens’ feathers have a checked appearance, further reinforcing the image.

The guinea hen flower is native to the British Isles and northern Europe, though like many wild flowers, it is less and less common in its native habitat. The plant grows from a small, segmented bulb that attests to the species’ membership in the lily family. The bulbs should be planted in the fall, about 5 inches down in well-drained soil. It is wise to treat Fritillaria meleagris like a crocus and plant it where it can be viewed at close range. The whole plant is no more than twelve inches tall, and because of the subdued color of the flowers, it is easy to miss.

Guinea hen flowers are purple; not the flamboyant purple of showy iris or the innocent purple of most crocuses and violets, but a rather world-weary shade. Ms. Sackville-West describes the plant as having a "wine-coloured chalice", and later on she refers to "its mournful colors of decay". Given her grim descriptions, it is somewhat hard to understand why she chose to include Fritillaria meleagris among her favorite plants in the 1937 book Some Flowers.

I can’t be as grim about guinea hen flowers as Vita Sackville-West. The blossoms

are too small and unintimidating to inspire depression in anyone who is not well on the way to that state to begin with. The flower heads droop modestly, as if they are aware of the dubious things that some people say about them. Planted in masses or at least clumps, especially when mixed with the white form, the guinea hen flowers are both charming and interesting to look at. If you pick a few in the spring and put them in a small vase or container where you can see them up close, you will see why they have long been a favorite of botanical illustrators.

If you hurry, you may find some low-priced guinea hen flower bulbs on sale at a local nursery. If not, wait until spring. If you can find someone who grows them, and is willing to divide an existing clump, beg a few. Guinea hen flowers will grow nicely and multiply in just about any garden situation—and most of the time, they will grow on the gardener as well.

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