The Fritilliaries of Oxford

By no means all his proposals were accepted? but the work of producing his submissions was enormous and time-consuming’. So says Patrick Taylor of the landscape designer Humphry Repton in his excellent new Oxford Companion to the Garden. Fair comment but I also suspect that, in Repton’s case, the proposals were sometimes the main point of the service. He was a master of making the pitch, and the form his pitch took was the ‘Red Book’. Each client received one of these custom-made red-bound albums of plans and before and after sketches.

The gesture’s cleverness lay in the fact that it allowed them to go only part of the way the flirting, talking, dreaming part and still have something to show. One could buy a piece of the master without the bother of actually shifting funds, earth and obtrusive tenants to turn the ‘before’ into ‘after’.

Among these virtual clients was my alma mater, Magdalen College, Oxford. No April passes without my giving thanks that, in 1801, the Fellows took receipt of their Red Book and basically told Repton: ‘Thanks old chap, but there’s no room for improvement after all’.

The grandest of his plans for Magdalen involved the excavation and flooding of what he called the college’s ‘low, damp meadow’ to make a giant boating lake. I suspect it was lack of liquidity that reprieved the water meadow; but there are reasons aplenty for thinking his lake would have been folly. Enclosed since the Middle Ages and untouched save for an annual mowing, Magdalen’s meadow is uniquely lovely as it is. Where would we have fattened the college’s delicious deer herd each summer? What length of punting pole would have been needed to reach the fathomless bottom of Repton’s lagoon?

But the strongest objection by far to his plans is that this ancient sward hosts one of the last great populations of the snakeshead fritillary, Fritillaria meleagris. Between now and May Day, the meadow will slowly change colour, from emerald to wine red, with here and there a pink or pure white highlight as first hundreds and then hundreds of thousands of fritillaries come into bloom. It is an extraordinary thing to behold this paradisiacal pointillism, and it is all the more marvellous for its happening in the heart of a hectic city.

These rare drifts of pixilated purple are now believed to be the westernmost and stranded relics of a wider Continental population. A swarm of folk names such as snake lily, death bell, guinea-hen flower and leper’s bell would indeed suggest the fritillary was a long standing feature of marshy English pasture. Yet botanists do not seem to have accepted that it was native until the 18th century: how could anything so unearthly be home-grown?

It is easy to sympathise with them. Few hardy bulbs are more remarkable than fritillaries. They capture sunshine like lanterns composed of the most intricate glass mosaic. It is a patterning that gave rise to both of their Latin names?meleagris, from the mottled plumage of the guineafowl (Numida meleagris); and Fritillaria from fritillus, meaning a Roman dice cup. Ever an enigma, the fritillary debate even extended to this ludic allusion. Some herbalists believed the dice cup would have been made of woven leather or rushes, so recalling the tessellated flower. Others followed John Gerard, who, in 1597, said the name referred to ‘the table or board upon which men plaie at chesse, which square checkers the flower doth very much resemble’.

But Gerard did say something about the snakeshead fritillary that is beyond dispute: ‘They are greately esteemed for the beautifieng of our gardens and the bosomes of the beautifull’. For garden beautifying, the best thing is to buy some of the pots of Fritillaria meleagris that are in bloom at garden centres now. Like snowdrops, they are better planted ‘in the green’, so enjoy their flowers and plant them out afterwards without too much trauma to the rootball. They will thrive in sun or light shade, but they do prefer slightly damp and sticky soil. Rough grass suits them perfectly and they can be mown once their foliage begins to wither in summer. In such spots, they will readily seed themselves: just cast the dice and you will soon see why a red meadow beats a Red Book every time.