By Audrey Stallsmith
The next time that I passed by the banks of the Kennet was in the lovely season which just precedes the merry month of May...and the meadows were literally painted with cowslips, orchises, the brilliant flowers of the water- ranunculus, the chequered fritillary, and the enamelled wild hyacinth.
One of the most charming spring bloomers is probably also one of the least well known. Guinea hen flower or fritillaria melagris, which grows wild in southern England, boasts a color scheme like no other.
Gerard describes it as being “chequered most strangely: wherein. . .the Creator of all things, hath kept a very wonderfull order, surpassing (as in all other things) the curiousest painting that Art can set downe. One square is of a greenish yellow colour, the other purple. . .blackish in one square, and of a Violet colour in an other, insomuch that every leafe seemeth to be the feather of a Ginny hen, whereof it tooke his name.”
Since we own some of those noisy—and none-too-bright—barnyard fowls known as guineas, I can testify that the mottling is very similar. As the birds sport a small and somewhat wild-turkey-like head on a bulky body, however, I would have to contend that the flowers are much prettier!
They are my favorite of the fritillarias, though most people probably associate that name with the much larger and vastly different crown imperial (fritillaria imperialis). Although many find that bulb’s foxy odor offensive these days, the plant was very popular in ancient and colonial times for its large and flashy wreath of bright bell-shaped flowers, topped by a coronet of leaves.
In Winter’s Tale, Shakespeare’s Perdita lists crown imperial among the “flowers of spring”, and it stood for “majesty” and “power” in the Language of Flowers. The plant’s musky scent might actually be considered an asset, since it’s reputed to repel garden pests!
Crown imperial is supposed to be poisonous in all its parts, but I suspect, from Gerard’s description of the flower’s “honey” that he may have actually tasted the same—and lived to tell about it! “In the bottom of each of these bels,” he writes, “there is placed sixe drops of most cleare shining sweet water, in taste like sugar, resembling in shew faire orient pearls; the which drops if you take away, there do immediately appeare the like: notwithstanding if they may be suffered to stand still in the floure according to his own nature, they will never fall away, no not if you strike the plant untill it be broken.”.
Fritillaria derives from fritillus, which is translated--depending on whom you consult--as either “dicebox” or “chessboard.” It most likely refers to the checkered member of the family, as do most of the plant’s other nicknames: snake’s head, variegated lily, checkered daffodil, turkey hen flower, pheasant lily, leopard lily, sullen lady, Lazarus bell and leper lily.
The last designation refers to the bloom’s shape, which is thought to resemble the warning bell lepers were required to ring. Perhaps that association is why guinea hen flower stands for “persecution.”
Although these two fritillarias are the best known, there are many others that will add their own unique charm to your garden. Since “black” is so popular at present the most desirable would probably be the “chocolate lilies,” most of which grow wild in the western U.S. There are several fritillarias that bear that nickname-- including fritillaria atropurpurea, biflora, camschatcensis, and lanceolata.
Not all, of course, are hardy in the colder areas of this country, but the guinea hen flower definitely is. It will have you down on your knees, not only to study its peculiar coloring but also to pay tribute to the Artist!
Plant plate is from Les Liliacees by P. J. Redoute, courtesy of the Missouri Botanical Garden Library.