Country mouse studies the snake’s head fritillary

History in the making.

I have never seen or found a stranger plant growing in Britain, but in the field next to my house, on the edge of the bluebell-filled copse, stalks of sickly white about the size of asparagus were poking upwards. At first, I thought it was a strange fungus, but, on closer inspection, I could see waxy, purple flowers like broken, mauve-stained molars. Unsurprisingly, its name is toothwort (Lathraea squamaria), a shadowy parasite entirely lacking in chlorophyll, which grows on the roots of beech and hazel. It’s a ghost plant.

It was given its name by John Gerard in his great book The Herball, which features elsewhere in this edition with the astonishing new discovery of the portrait of William Shakespeare. Seeing the rare toothwort seemed a strange coincidence, but this whole project has been full of them. Earlier, when I first spoke to Mark Griffiths about his great discovery, he brought a rare first edition of The Herball to the office and, as we were flicking through its 1,480 pages, a single pressed flower fell out. It was a snake’s head fritillary, the same species that Shakespeare is seen holding on its frontispiece. It felt as if he was reaching out of the book to us.