Which came first, fritillary as the name of a plant (Fritillaria meleagris, the snake’s-head fritillary, also known as chess-flower, Lazarus-bell, leper-lily, frog-cup, or drooping tulip), or fritillary as the name of a butterfly? It seems that the plant has priority, as its first mention is alleged to be in a communication from a French physician and botanist, Noel Caperon, to Carolus Clusius, sending him a specimen of the plant and suggesting that it be called Fritillaria, after the Latin word for a chessboard, fritillus.
Later, Caperon was either slaughtered with other Huguenots at Orléans after St Bartholomew’s Eve (1572), or escaped to England, carrying fritillary bulbs with him and thus introducing them to the country. (Interestingly, in the ‘language of flowers’, ‘fritillary’ means ‘persecution’ …) The name seems to have been transferred later to various butterfly species because the chequered pattern on their wings was though to echo that of the flower, as described below.
There are various uncertainties in the story of Caperon, not least that fritillus is not the Latin for ‘chessboard’ but for a dice-box (usually beaker-shaped). John Gerard’s Herball (1597) calls the plant ‘checkered daffodill’ or ‘Turkie or Ginnie-hen flower’, and describes the flower as ‘checkered most strangely: wherein nature or rather the Creator of all things hath kept a very wonderfull order, surpassing (as in all other things), the curiest painting that Art can set down’.
The references to ‘turkie’ and ‘guinea hen’ also refer to the chequering of the flowers: the second half of the binomial, meleagris, is the Latin (from Greek) for the African guinea-fowl (we won’t now go into the mythological associations …); and Meleagris is the Linnaean name for the turkey.
John Parkinson, in his punning Paradisi in Sole Paradisus Terrestris, gives twelve varieties, several from Europe, and, like Gerard, states that the plant comes from the region of Orléans (while in fact it is native across northern and central Europe).
Whether F. meleagris is a British native is disputed: it was first recorded in the wild in 1736, but that may be only because no botanist had previously noted it …
It prefers damp places, and I am hugely grateful that it is prepared to flower in my very dry garden (though, alas, the white ones have not re-appeared this year). The best sites to see them in the (relatively) wild today are the flood-plain meadows of the Thames, most famously at Magdalen College, Oxford, but also in a specially maintained meadow in the village of Ducklington.
They are a frequent subject in art, possibly because capturing the complexity on such a small scale is a great technical challenge?
But F. meleagris, though arguably the most beautiful, is not of course the only fritillary to be found in British gardens these days.
F. imperialis, the crown imperial, is much more striking, standing as it does up to four feet high, with large, bell-shaped flowers, usually orange or deep yellow (and, it is alleged, a smell of fox, which I have never been able to detect – not that I know what foxes are supposed to smell like). Native to Iran, Afghanistan and north-west India, it was known to Parkinson, who said that ‘for its stately beautifullnesse, [it] deserveth the first place in our garden of delight’.
But not just botanists and gardeners knew it: Shakespeare has Perdita name ‘the crown imperial’ among the spring flowers which are already faded by the time of the sheep-shearing; and George Herbert mentions it in his poem ‘Peace’ (in The Temple): ‘Then went I to a garden, and did spy/A gallant flower,/The Crown Imperiall: sure, said I,/Peace at the root must dwell./But when I digg’d, I saw a worm devoure/What show’d so well.’
The crown imperial is frequently a subject in Dutch and French flower paintings, where it more than holds its own among the roses and lilies.
One intriguing image in Parkinson is the plant (see above) between the crown imperial and the martagon lily: it is labelled Lilium persicum, the Persian lily, but I assume that it is F. persica, a gorgeous pagoda of blossoms which comes in a sort of matte aubergine purple, or in greenish white. (The individual bulbs can be eye-wateringly expensive, and I have now failed to grow them twice.)
Another fritillary which is increasingly common in British gardens is F. uva-vulpis, ‘fox’s grape’ (??), coming originally from eastern Turkey, Iraq and Iran, and named as late as 1974. I was astonished to see dozens of them in the beds in Elder Street Gardens, at the back of Spitalfields Market, last week.
There are very many other species of fritillary worldwide, from the Pyrenees to California and China, but few are available to purchase, and many are increasing rare for all the usual depressing reasons of theft, habitat loss and climate change. Let’s hope that the existing meadows of snake’s-heads in this country continue to flourish, and that the good people of Ducklington have a great time on Sunday!