Is there a beloved culinary recipe at your house that the whole family values but takes a significant investment of time and money to create? Yet, you make that investment year after year because, once achieved, the family rallies around it as an army rallies around a beloved general. Annually, each winter my wife will make an authentic Alsatian stew. Needless to say, anything French is delectable.
There are horticultural equivalents, plants that you grow just because you love them, no matter how difficult and temperamental they might be. The Chequered Lily (Fritillaria meleagris) is such a plant.
This little lily (that’s hard to say! just try saying ‘little lily’ ten times fast in a row) has been grown for centuries from southern England, across the Channel, into northern France and eastward into Russia where it is grown both in gardens and naturalized in alluvial plains. As a genus, Fritillaria has some 100 species that grow from either ellipsoid or globose bulbs.
Several species of Fritillaria grow in North America, mostly in the West, from northern California into Oregon and Washington. From this very abbreviated description of the genus, you can (no doubt) gather that Fritillaria as a genus might not be happy in the warm, sultry Southern states. Yet, each year I buy a few bulbs that I grow in pots and force into bloom. Sometimes I’ll even set them out in the garden in little pockets where they can be easily seen, noticed and admired. And each year when the little Fritillaria meleagris blooms, visitors to my garden and I gather to its unique bloom and offer to it, its due, horticultural reverence.
The plant, itself, after blooming will generally die, the bulbs not replenishing themselves for a following spring bloom. But, tragically and inevitably, they disappear in the soil with a dark death not to reappear in the spring. So, if I would have them each year, I must buy the squatty, quarter-size bulbs afresh, setting them out mid-winter.
I’m peculiarly enamored with the diminutive Fritillaria meleagris, but it does have a famous cousin, F. imperialis or the Crown Imperial. As its name implies, it is large, showy and regal. I might have tried this Fritillaria at some point because, when I have seen it in photographs, the plant looks fantastic and has a bit of pageantry all in itself. Very tempting to the gardener to grow, except for one quality: as the New Royal Horticultural Dictionary of Gardening puts it, “malodorous- smelling of fox”. That might be a good description of me after a day in the garden, but I don’t want to lay out good money for such a plant.
Back to the beloved Chequered Lily. A plant that has been grown for hundreds of years across so many countries somehow draws to it the vast resources of human language to capture its essence. It has several common names attached to it: “Guinea Hen Flower”, “Snake’s Head Lily” (the bloom resembles the dip a snake’s head has the moment before it strikes),“Leper Lily” (the shape of the tiny flowers resembled the bells lepers carried in Medieval times).
When Chequered Lily blooms, you will readily understand this common name. Each petal of the flower looks very similar to a checkered chess board, but words can’t really express the marvel of this plant’s bloom. One must gather to it (get low to the ground) to behold and appreciate. The flowers appear out of the ground on 6” high stems. The little plants seems to demand from the human observer a little humility and acquiescence if we would see its wonder.
So, sometime this spring, in my little walled garden I will bow low to see this little lily’s delectable presentation, and I will marvel afresh!