How to Plant & Grow Snake’s Head Fritillary (Fritillaria meleagris)

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Snake's head fritillary 'Alba' variety
The flowers of the snake’s head fritillary plant come in many different colors. For example, the ‘Alba’ variety has fully white petals. Andrey Zharkikh / CC BY 2.0

A plant that demands close inspection from both novice gardeners and professional horticulturists, Fritillaria meleagris is not your usual perennial. Due to its patterned petals, it is commonly called snake’s head fritillary, checkered daffodil, and chess flower. It is also sometimes referred to as Lazarus bell or leper lily because its flowers resemble the shape of a bell once carried by lepers as a warning sign. Instead of wanting to keep away, however, you’ll find yourself approaching the nodding blooms!

Flowers come in a variety of vivid purples or can be wholly white (‘Alba’ variety). In contrast, the grey to green lance-shaped leaves are narrow enough to resemble wisps of grass. F. meleagris belongs to an extremely popular family of flowering plants, Liliaceae. It’s no mystery why its blooms have decorative value as its relatives include tulips and lilies. If you’d like to see this species in the wild, you’ll have to take a walk through the alpine meadows of Europe. Snake’s head fritillary is most noticeable in flooded plains, while it blooms in mid-spring.

Facts, Benefits & Uses of Snake’s Head Fritillary

This species would look great along the edge of a small pond or water garden. Despite its tendency to attract attention, it grows to a maximum of just 16 inches (40 cm)! Once abundant throughout the UK, (though there is some dispute regarding its natural distribution there) and extending into Western Siberia, it is now considered an endangered plant. Unfortunately, much of its natural habitat has deteriorated or was converted into farmlands.

Back in the day, snake’s head blooms would dot the banks of River Thames, where they would be harvested and sold in Covent Garden. Natural populations are now protected by wildlife trusts. Nonetheless, several farmed cultivars are readily available on the market. Snake’s head fritillary is a recipient of the RHS Award of Garden Merit. It is so popular in the UK that Oxford holds its own “Fritillary Sunday” to celebrate the plant.

Apart from its deer-resistant and poisonous bulbs, there are virtually no drawbacks to cultivating this species. It is also friendly to wandering bees, which are its main pollinators. The flowers are able to reflect light waves that lie close to UV or infrared on the spectrum, making it easy for bees to find them.

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Snake's Head Fritillary Fact Sheet:
Herbaceous perennial
USDA 4 – 8
Full sun to partial sun
Purple, pink, white
April to May
16 inches (40 cm)
3 inches (7.6 cm) in soil
pH 6.1 – 7.8

Snake’s Head Fritillary Growth, Hardiness & Climate

Snake's head fritillary in bloom
It can take up to 5 years for snake’s head fritillary to produce flowers! Yerpo, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The above-ground features of F. meleagris tend to die back in summer, after the seeds of pollinated blooms have become dispersed due to wind or water action. For this reason, it is best to grow this plant alongside late-summer perennial plants that will mask its dormancy. In early fall, the bulb exits dormancy to produce new roots, only to grow dormant once more in winter. As temperatures drop in the succeeding spring, it quickly develops a shoot with sparse leaves. The blooms remain fertile for just a few days so pollinators must act fast!

It can take up to 5 years for a fritillary bulb to mature and generate flowers each year. If ambient conditions in the previous year are poor, the plant may fail to flower. Climate conditions in USDA hardiness zones 4 – 8 should be best for this species. For a natural look, bulbs should be placed in borders or among grasses, in groups of 6 or more. Moderately fertile, well-draining soil and dappled sunlight should keep them happy.

How to Plant Snake’s Head Fritillary

Seeds inside a snake's head fritillary capsule
Snake’s head fritillary can be planted using seeds, though it’s more common to plant it using its bulbs. James Steakley, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Fritillaria meleagris can be planted using its seeds or bulbs. It’s more common to propagate this species using its bulbs as germination and early root maturation times are considerably lengthy. Moreover, storage can reduce seed viability. If you are able to acquire them, bulbs are the way to go. They are best planted in autumn so that new roots have time to grow before the succeeding bloom period.

When selecting fritillary bulbs, make sure to opt for large ones as these contain more stored food and are likely to produce blooms. Freshly harvested bulbs are also a must as they don’t have a protective sheath to prevent moisture loss. You can plant these directly outdoors, preferably in a partially shaded area. The bulb should be situated around 3 inches (7.6 cm) underneath the soil surface, with its growth point facing upward or at a 45˚ angle (to prevent water accumulation). This soil depth should adequately protect the bulb as it enters dormancy.

If soil conditions are optimal, the bulb will quickly produce roots. You’ll have to be patient as it will take a few months to produce shoots and flowers. Also, don’t be dismayed if a few mature bulbs are never able to flower. These are considered “blind” bulbs and are a bit of a mystery, even to experts.

How to Care for Snake’s Head Fritillary

Snake's head fritillary flowers sprouting just before bloom
Proper care will keep snake’s head fritillary bulbs viable, and your plant may even surprise you with some new shoots in a few years! Yerpo, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Because this plant’s shoots, leaves, and flowers have such a brief life, it is often treated as an annual. Proper care will keep its bulbs viable. They may even multiply and surprise you with new shoots in succeeding years. Fertilizer should be provided each spring, right before the bloom period or just when the buds have opened. The soil should be kept consistently moist in order to prevent the bulb from drying out.

Once flowers are spent, you can cut them down. This will give the leaves a chance to grow and produce more of the plant’s energy requirements. Leaves become yellow in summer, during which the entire shoot can be cut down to ground level.

Snake’s head fritillary is resistant to grazing from deer and voles, but it is susceptible to the scarlet lily beetle (Lilioceris lilii). This red leaf beetle likes to lay its eggs on the fritillaria leaves. Hatched larvae can quickly decimate an entire plant. Manually remove eggs and larvae as soon as they are spotted. In case of large infestations, consider using an insecticide.

How to Winter Snake’s Head Fritillary

This species is cold hardy to temperatures that drop to -15˚C (5˚F). The dormant bulbs are also able to tolerate mild frosts. They need not be brought indoors through winter and can simply be protected with a light layer of mulch. Keep in mind that, unlike other bulbous perennials, these don’t have a protective sheath for moisture retention. They should not be exposed to air for long periods. Those cultivated in containers can be relocated to a cold frame or greenhouse if winters are extreme in your area.

Is Snake’s Head Fritillary Invasive or Toxic?

F. meleagris is non-invasive outside of its native range. It would be prudent to keep in mind that the entire plant is toxic, however, and can be dangerous. Like tulips, it contains alkaloids (Imperialine, tulipalin A, tuliposide A) that can irritate the skin or alter heart and kidney functions. Ingestion of the plant can also lead to gastrointestinal problems.

Interestingly, the toxic alkaloids have been studied for their pharmaceutical uses. They are mostly concentrated in the plant’s root system. As a precaution, handle the bulbs and upper plant organs with gloves. Tulipalin A is notorious for causing an ailment called Lily Rash or Fingertip Itch – a florist’s term for contact dermatitis.

Is Snake’s Head Fritillary Edible? Will Animals Eat it?

Due to the presence of toxins, F. meleagris is not an edible plant. Ingestion can cause vomiting, followed by extreme thirst. In severe cases, the plant can cause kidney damage and death. Wild animals are wise enough to keep away from the plant, but pets can be highly vulnerable. It may be best to fence off fritillary patches if your pets wander around freely.

Where to Buy Snake’s Head Fritillary & Seeds? (UK & US)

Fritillaria meleagris is seldom available as a potted plant due to the seasonal occurrence of its shoot features. In early autumn, freshly harvested bulbs should be available from several plant nurseries in their native range. Online plant stores may also carry them, but be cautious when purchasing the bulbs without having done a visual inspection beforehand. 

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