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Snakeshead Lily

Fritillaria meleagris

  • Name also: Snake’s Head, Fritillary, Chess Flower, Frog-cup, Guinea-hen Flower, Leper Lily, Checkered Daffodil, Chequered Lily
  • Family: Lily Family – Liliaceae
  • Growing form: Perennial herb. Bulb underground.
  • Height: 15–30 cm (6–12 in.). Stem unbranched. Smells of cat’s urine.
  • Flower: Perianth widely bell-shaped (campanulate), purple, checked, (sometimes completely white or pink), 3–4 cm (1.2–1.6 in.) wide. Tepals 6 in 2 similar whorls. Stamens 6, anthers yellow. Pistil of 3 fused carpels. Flower solitary, terminating stem, nodding.
  • Leaves: Leaves 4–5, alternate, stalkless. Blade linear, slightly grooved, with entire margins, parallel-veined, greyish green.
  • Fruit: Spherical, loculicidal (3-parted, 6-edged), 12–15 mm (0.48–0.6 in.) high, erect capsule.
  • Habitat: Damp coppices and shoreside meadows. Also an ornamental, wild in parks, gardens, yards, ditches.
  • Flowering time: May–June.

Snakeshead lily is protected on the Åland Islands.

Snakeshead lily is native to south-east Europe, but it has spread all across the continent with people, and partly independently. It was brought to Uppland in southern Sweden as an ornamental in the 17th century, and Finnish stands on the Åland Islands may have travelled across the sea from the west. Its small seeds do not remain viable for long, but they are light and buoyant and can spread without any human help. The species’ old stands are in Geta, Finström and Lemland. Usually the beautifully-flowered plant can be found around gardens: some of the stands on the Åland Islands have started as planted areas and also on the mainland it can grow as an escape from inhabited areas.

Depending on how the spring progresses snakeshead lily might sometimes flower at the end of May. Despite its exotic appearance it is a hardy plant which is unaffected by night frost or even snow. Its flowers are among the largest in Finland, like small tulip flowers with regards to size and form. The flowers are usually red-checked, but there are also completely white or pink flowers. Its pollinators are bumble bees but self-pollination is common. The tepals sometimes fall in June, and it is difficult to pick out the hay-like leaves among other vegetation. At the end of June the seeds are ripe and the plant begins to turn yellow, and at the end of summer it grows new flower stems under the ground. If it is destroyed in the winter, the plant can remain invisible underground while it grows new bulbils.

Snakeshead lily should be admired where it is growing rather than picked. It is an endangered plant, and bulbils are freely available in garden centres. It has become more abundant on the Åland Islands where it is protected and when shading trees and high-growing vegetation have been limited.

Other species from the same family

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