Purple Checks: Fritillaria meleagris

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As a photographer I find the tiny checkered markings on the petals of Fritillaria meleagris irresistible. Also known as the ‘snake’s head fritillary’ (because of the shape of the unopened buds and the resemblance of the markings to a snake’s skin), it is a most unusual-looking flower.

The distinctive markings have given rise to other names for the plant. ‘Chess flower’ is a pretty obvious one, but ‘guinea hen flower or just ‘guinea flower’ come from the similarity of the checks to the spots on the bird’s feathers. (The Latin ‘meleagris’ has the same meaning.) Then there’s ‘checkered daffodil’ (it isn’t a daffodil) and ‘checkered lily’ (it is a member of the lily family).

Knowing that fritillaries are Liliaceae made me suspect that, like other lilies, they would be highly toxic to cats. I have two cats of my own and occasional feline visitors (or invaders as my two would reckon). So I have kept this plant in a pot that’s out of their way. Turns out that I was right to suspect the fritillary’s toxicity because I’ve just read that the plant contains elements that cause damage to both heart and kidneys. This is probably one to be wary of if you have a cat that likes to nibble plants.

If you’re in the UK or Europe you might be lucky enough to come across a damp meadow where these flowers are growing wild. They used to be much more common in water meadows, especially in the area around the Thames, but gradually disappeared as more land was cultivated. Happily for their survival, they’re a popular garden plant. It’s easy to see why!

Flowers of Fritillary meleagris
Fritillaria meleagris